Mel Walsh
Special to The Union

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June 29, 2009
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Lessons for living longer

Cavemen were not health planning wonks.

And when it comes to foresight about our own wellbeing, today's humans are still pretty blind. Our brains were made to think "now", not two years from now, which is why the idea of chocolate fudge today is so much more forceful than the image of a weigh scale reading a year from now.

So when we humans come up with an idea about health that is future-oriented - living longer, for instance - and we actually motivate a town to think ahead and set itself in motion to get its citizens an extra two years of life - it's a downright marvel.

It's also the biggest community project ever undertaken by the AARP.

The town is Albert Lea, Minn., and, sponsored by the AARP, they are running an experiment, the Vitality Project, where the interested townsfolk practice four keys to a long life. The keys come from a book written by the Vitality Project's leader, Dan Buettner. The book is "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Are Living The Longest".

Dan studied the world's longevity hot spots and for the Vitality Project, he translated the information into four areas. So this is what the town is doing ...

Community Environment: Creating more bike and walking paths, garden plots and a farmer's market, making it easier to get out and move, making it easier to get fresh plant-based food.

Social Groups: Forming walking and biking clubs. On the walking front, parents and seniors started what they call Walking Buses, where the adults and children form a small pedestrian group to walk the students back and forth to school.

Home and Work Habits: Revamping school and business cafeterias, grocery stores and restaurants. There are also cooking classes that teach people how to prepare healthy meals and how to serve meals from the stovetop and not the table, where it is too easy to reach out for second helpings.

Building the Inner Self: Having a sense of purpose and a strong connection to community is one of the keys to longevity. The Vitality Project offers workshops on how to find activities that offer maximum psychological reward.

Some of the results of the experiment reveal old attitudes. One high school teacher who now walks to school upset her students by leaving her car at home. The kids thought only people who were convicted of drunk driving walked anywhere.

We'll find out in October when results will be announced, but interested townspeople plan to keep on keeping on when the Vitality Project is officially over. Furthermore, the AARP hopes to replicate the positive results they expect throughout the country.

If you want to stay up on this fascinating experiment, google AARP Vitality Project where you can sign up for the newsletter.

Mel Walsh is a gerontologist, author and columnist. Her book, Hot Granny, is available at The Book Seller in Grass Valley. Visit Mel at www.melwalsh.com.


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The Union Updated Jun 29, 2009 08:54PM Published Jun 29, 2009 08:52PM Copyright 2009 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.