If you're curious about this Blue Zones project that may involve the city of Lebanon, join the club: It sounds like it could be a terrific deal for the city, but there are still some big unanswered questions. 

But even if it doesn't go any further, the work the city and its citizens already have done helps illuminate the important connections between community and public health.

Here's the background: Organizers of the so-called Blue Zones Project Oregon have announced that Lebanon is one of the finalists to be named the second Blue Zone city in Oregon. (Klamath Falls already has earned the designation, and apparently the plan is to have only two Oregon locations.)

The entire project stems from a research question National Geographic asked more than a decade ago: Why are some communities healthier than others?

Researcher Dan Buettner traveled the world and found five regions where, statistically, people lived longer and healthier lives than their counterparts elsewhere. They are Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and among a population of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.

In all five regions, people had a much higher rate of longevity and fewer instances of illness, dementia and other health problems than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. That prompted two more questions: What are they doing? And can it be replicated elsewhere?

What they're doing, researchers found, involves a lot of activities already acknowledged to promote healthy living: regular exercise, moderate calorie intake, a purpose in society and an emphasis on family and community connections.

Can other communities follow the same map? That's the question that the Blue Zone project aims to answer. The Cambia Health Foundation brought the Blue Zones idea to Oregon. Now, the effort is underway to choose the second Oregon city involved in the effort. 

The winning community will receive a funded program of $1.2 million per year for three years, meaning Blue Zones Project Oregon will pay to hire people and organize, in partnership with the community, the kinds of activities that create and sustain healthy living. The selected community must contribute $200,000 to $400,000 per year during those three years to offset the costs of the effort. In part, that local money is meant to ensure that the chosen community is making a real investment in the effort, but it's fair to ask where that money would come from and whether the Blue Zones project is the best use of that money. The answers to those questions should come into better focus in the weeks to come; project organizers say they'll announce the other Oregon community selected by the end of the year.

But consider this: Part of the reason why Lebanon is able to make such a strong application is work that the community did before anyone heard of the Blue Zones program: A series of trails through the city and area, courtesy of the volunteer group Build Lebanon Trails. A project at Cheadle Lake. The city's new medical school, which has excelled at outreach efforts. The Samaritan Health Services campus and new healing garden at the nearby hospital. This is a community that's already ahead of many of its counterparts in terms of promoting healthy activities and lifestyles. 

Maybe Lebanon will earn the Blue Zone designation and maybe it will turn out to be a terrific deal all around. But our guess here is that, Blue Zone or not, Lebanon won't be rolling back any of the initiatives that have helped pave the way for improved community health. (mm)

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