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Keys to living longer: Eat less sugar, find purpose

Ten years ago, when experts were looking for a Minnesota city to turn into a center of health and longevity, for free, Alexandria couldn't quite drum up the interest.

"Sometimes you need a crisis to get people organized behind an idea," said Sandy Tubbs, administrator of Horizon Public Health. "It might have been too soon."

Interest in the idea was piqued again Thursday after a proponent spoke at Senior College in Alexandria.

After Alexandria faded out of the competition, the experts went to Albert Lea, creating what they call a Blue Zones community there. Blue Zones are what National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner dubbed areas around the globe where people routinely live to 100 or beyond without chronic disease or other serious health problems.

Buettner's brother, Tony Buettner, who works with him at their Minnesota-based company, also called Blue Zones, spoke at Alexandria Technical & Community College on Thursday, kicking off Senior College's spring session with a packed auditorium.

Albert Lea became the first Blue Zones Pilot Project in the world. After making changes like new walking trails, healthy snacks in a checkout lane and reducing smoking among adults, Blue Zones calculates Albert Lea residents' life expectancy grew by about 2.9 years.

Tony Buettner said he wasn't with his brother's company when it was seeking a pilot project city. However, he said, a Blue Zones project undertakes such an intense evaluation and transformation of a community that it requires broad support from community leaders.

Several of those leaders, including Tubbs, spoke with Buettner during a break in Friday's session.

But Blue Zones' work isn't free anymore. Although Buettner wouldn't publicly name a price, he said it would require significant buy-in from the community, both in dollars and in commitment.

Tubbs said growing awareness of health problems, such as childhood obesity, may drive enthusiasm locally toward embracing the Blue Zones concept.

"Now we have to capitalize on the momentum," she said.

Blue Zones were so named for the marker color his brother used to identify five areas of unusual longevity on a map, Buettner said. In Costa Rica, Japan, Italy, Greece and California, the brothers have interviewed people over age 100 who still fish every day to feed their families, who bike to work, who start their days with a swim and who even still ride horses.

Much of their work has been documented in National Geographic, in Time magazine, and in Dan Buettner's book, "The Blue Zones." On Thursday, 22 copies of that book sold from a small table staffed by Lee Becker from Cherry Street Books.

While Americans eat on average 91 pounds of sugar and 208 pounds of meat per year, Blue Zones communities eat hardly any sugar and not much meat, Tony Buettner said.

While Americans love their cars, people in Blue Zones communities move their bodies all the time as they garden, walk to neighboring houses and enjoy nature.

While Americans report having fewer close friends now than they did 30 years ago, Blue Zones communities are made up of close-knit groups of families and friends. On Okinawa, Japan, people belong to "moai," or a small group with a common purpose, for their entire lives.

Other characteristics the researchers found:

• Those in Blue Zones drink primarily water, coffee, tea and wine, particularly an antioxidant-rich Cannonau wine favored in Sardinia, an Italian island that is among the Blue Zones.

• Blue Zones inhabitants don't retire. The elderly are valued and contribute to their households.

• Almost all centenarians they interviewed in Blue Zones belong to a faith-based community.

About Senior College

Senior College, a lecture series for all adults at Alexandria Technical & Community College, offers a series of college-level lectures in the spring and fall. Senior College is seeing growing attendance, said Bob Defries, director of Customized Training and Workforce Development at the college.

"When you look at the offerings provided and the cost to the attendees, seniors in the area are recognizing the value," Defries said. "The thought-provoking session topics range from economic, social, and world events, to adventure, technology, history, and more."

This spring's series runs Tuesday and Thursdays through April 26. The cost is $100 for 14 lectures.

Upcoming topics include "Resilience in the Face of Climate Change," on Tuesday, March 13, "Booms, Busts, and Policy in the US," on Thursday, March 15, and "Is the Internet failing?" on March 20.

For more information, contact the Customized Training Center at 762-4510 or 888-234-1313 or visit