Many American cities aren't set up to stimulate good health of their residents, a problem that can be fixed through applying the practices of communities with long histories of health, a health expert said Wednesday.
“The answer, the secret of longevity, and at the same time, the answer to the health care problem does not lie with our doctors — they help, but they don't have the answers,” said Dan Buettner, a best-selling author and renowned explorer.
“Obamacare isn't the answer. Mitt Romney doesn't have the answer. Big Pharma doesn't have the answer. The answer lies with paying close attention to cultures that have achieved outcomes we want, and it's not all that different than the way that our grandparents and their grandparents before them.”
Buettner spoke to health leaders Wednesday at the Oklahoma Hospital Association's annual convention about how the state could better its health status.
The convention's theme is “Leading the Way to a Healthy Future,” a concept that hospital association President Craig Jones said represents the role hospitals can play in improving the health status of Oklahomans.
“We're just hoping that people will realize we can be a part of this,” Jones said. “You don't have to be a big hospital. You don't have to have a lot of resources. There are a lot of ideas that, if we just unify our overall effort, we can begin to push that needle.”
For several years, Oklahoma has ranked poorly in several health status indicators, including poor ranking in infant mortality and high rates of heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes.
For example, Oklahoma has one of the highest death rates in the U.S., meaning Oklahoma residents aren't living as long as residents in other states.
On Wednesday, Buettner, the founder and chief executive officer of Blue Zones, spoke about what lessons he has learned from communities around the world that have the highest rates of centenarians, among other positive health indicators.
In 2004, Buettner and a team of researchers, financed through a National Geographic grant, traveled around the world to identify places where people were living longer and better.
The team found that, for example, the female residents of Okinawa, Japan, on average, live longer than any other women in the world. Residents of Okinawa have less heart disease, cancer and dementia.
Buettner credited Okinawa's success to things like moais, close groups of friends that are first formed when residents are 5 years old. Buettner gave an example a group of women who were in their 100s and had been friends since childhood, thanks to the moai they had formed as children.
A culture that promotes friendship is a culture that sees low rates of loneliness, which can take years off a person's life, he said.
Using research from what they've found in communities such as Okinawa, Buettner and his company have created plans for communities in the United States to improve their residents' health and overall wellness.
Buettner sought out research about communities that were unhealthy and got better. He didn't find a single community in the United States where a public health plan had been put in place that caused successful and long-lasting results.
“As long as the researchers are there paying attention or the cameras are rolling, people will eat their veggies or go on the fun run, but as soon as those researchers leave, people go back to their base,” he said.
He did find two communities in Europe that had been successful in improving health. In 1972, Finland had the highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the world. The program that Finland used did not rely on personal responsibility, telling residents to eat more vegetables or get more exercise.
Instead, the program changed the environment, using evidence-based ways to make long-term environmental change. Buettner applied those same ideas to a community in Minnesota, helping the community improve workplace wellness policies, revising restaurant menus, building community gardens and creating walking clubs, among other things.
The community saw its life expectancy grow about three years and saw residents lose a collective 12,000 pounds. It also saw a 21 percent drop in absenteeism among employers and a 40 percent decrease in health care costs among city employees.
The program implemented in Minnesota was not a “weight loss” program but instead an effort to improve the environment and ecosystem in Albert Lea, Minn.
“Individual responsibility is a good thing, but we just don't live in an environment that makes individual responsibility very easy right now,” he said. “The secret is thinking about an ecosystem, thinking about what holds eating the right way and moving the right way in place, and that's purpose, that's faith, that's feeling like you belong, that's having the right people around you — there's where the answers lie, and we see it over and over in Okinawa.”