What’s going on with the Health Makeover?

Published 8:45 am Thursday, February 19, 2009

Editor’s note: This Health Makeover column is from Michele Kimball, AARP’s state director. Michele is answering some questions about the AARP/Blue Zones City Health Makeover that have surfaced in the community. Please send via letters to the editor any questions about the project. The Health Makeover column appears every other Thursday.

What is the latest on the City Health Makeover?

After a very successful launch of the AARP Blue Zones City Health Makeover in January, I am pleased to report that Albert Lea is already on its way to transforming itself into a healthier community.

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Remember, our goal for this project is to help Albert Lea residents live longer, better and to add at least 10,000 years of projected life expectancy to the people of Albert Lea. And to refresh your memory — those changes come in two phases.

First, work is under way on the first phase — the environmental changes. City leaders have met with Dan Burden, a national walkability expert, to discuss ways to make Albert Lea more walkable and bikable. Several area restaurants have met with experts on healthy food choices. School and community education officials have begun plans to improve food choices for Albert Lea students and families. And the list of city involvement goes on! It is an understatement to say that we are impressed by level of interest and commitment that Albert Lea has shown toward this project so far.

The environmental changes will help make the second phase more successful — which involves individual changes and individual commitments to leading a healthier lifestyle. Stay tuned for this phase to launch this spring.

Why is AARP cosponsoring the Blue Zones City Health Makeover?

AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization with more than 40 million members (700,000 right here in Minnesota) that helps people 50-plus have independence, choice and control in ways that are beneficial and affordable to them and society as a whole. AARP’s highest priorities are health and economic security for all generations. Because of advances in health care, people are living longer lives, and redefining what it means to grow older. AARP knows that people don’t want to just live longer, they want to live healthier and purposeful lives. AARP is interested in developing ways to help people of all ages and all communities live healthier and purposeful lives.

Albert Lea residents and city leaders have already demonstrated their excitement for this project — and we at AARP are impressed! Did we pick the right community? Absolutely. Who is funding this project?

The project is funded by the Minnetonka-based United Health Foundation. Guided by a passion to help people live healthier lives, the United Health Foundation provides helpful information to support decisions that lead to better health outcomes and healthier communities. The United Health Foundation is committed to promoting innovation in the health of individuals and communities and is proud to support the AARP/Blue Zones City Health Makeover as a model that can be replicated in cities nationwide.

Why was Albert Lea chosen?

After reviewing the demographic and health statistics of several small cities in Wisconsin and Minnesota, targeted cities were asked to apply and they competed to be the subject of the makeover. Community leaders sent in comprehensive proposals explaining how they would help this project succeed. All of the proposals were strong and presented a difficult decision for the selection team that was made up of a group of experts from AARP and Blue Zones.

Albert Lea was selected because:

Based on the recommendation of public health experts, the project is being piloted in a town of 10-20,000 people. Albert Lea has approximately 18,000 residents.

City leaders assembled a leadership team that is ready and excited to help lead this effort on the ground. Elected officials, school administrators, the health community and employers in Albert Lea made a commitment to support community changes and to help individual residents make personal changes. We were impressed by the examples of success thus far and creative ideas suggested.

In addition, Albert Lea has statistically average health conditions for the United States. Thus, any other average city in America will be able to replicate this project.

How will the success of the project be measured?

Measuring success is very important to us because we want to show other cities across the country how to do their own makeover. By asking participants to calculate their life expectancy with a longevity calculator called the “Vitality Compass” twice — once in spring and again at the end of the project — we will be able to measure the success of the project and the impact of healthy changes on the projected longevity of residents of Albert Lea.

The Vitality Compass estimates how long you will live given your current lifestyle and habits. It also estimates how many of those years will be healthy years. The Vitality Compass is a highly-complex scientific algorithm created by Blue Zones in collaboration with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health using more than 350 recognized studies that measure the impact of certain behaviors on health. When it is taken more than once, the Vitality Compass measures the impact of changes in behavior and adjusts its projection. The compass is a series of 35 questions that takes about four minutes to complete.

How can I participate?

Check this column every other Thursday to fund out about upcoming events. Go online to www.bluezones.com/makeover

and take the vitality compass. Get involved as a volunteer. Let us know your thoughts about ways you think Albert Lea can become healthier. We need your participation in this project to make it successful.

In two weeks, look for a column from walkability expert Dan Burden, who came to the AARP Blue Zones launch on Jan. 15 and 16 and conducted town hall meetings about ways to make Albert Lea more walkable and bikable. Dan will update us on his suggestions to improve our community.

Michele Kimball is the state director for AARP.