Washtenaw Optimal Wellness aims to make Washtenaw County an international center of longevity

Jeff Tritten used to brag about Smoke BBQ, the restaurant he owned in Saline, but in his personal life, the food he served up was making him sick. Tritten was gaining weight as his health declined, and he needed more and more doctor visits to deal with edema and other problems.


He researched anti-inflammatory diets, stopped eating meat, and cut down on dairy. In a week, his edema was gone. In 100 days, he'd lost weight, his sleep apnea went away, and his blood pressure returned to the normal range.


"I decided there was something to this," Tritten says.


Continuing on that path, Tritten discovered Dan Buettner's book "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest." Buettner is a reporter who, in a National Geographic cover article, identified five regions where people live longer and healthier than average, which he dubbed Blue Zones: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and a Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, Calif. In his book, Buettner identified nine characteristics or principles common to all the identified areas.


Tritten began talking to health professionals across the county about whether Washtenaw County could become the United States' next Blue Zone, and went on to create Washtenaw Optimal Wellness (WOW), an organization seeking to bring an official Blue Zones project to the county.


Bringing a Blue Zones project to Washtenaw County


The nine commonalities of the Blue Zones, according to Buettner, are gentle movement, knowing your purpose, reducing stress, cutting calories, eating a plant-based diet, drinking in moderation, keeping family connections strong, finding a spiritual community, and building and maintaining a social support network. WOW is not yet officially affiliated with the Blue Zones organization, but executive committee members hope to change that.


Securing funding would be an early step. Tritten says health insurers have seen the impact of these projects in other communities and often will provide a grant to fund a new one.


"We're not quite at the point where we're ready to launch this," Tritten says. "We need funding, and at that point, we'd be talking about having a Blue Zones team come in and do a community assessment to get a feel for what's going to work and what's not."


One of the official Blue Zones slogans is "Make the healthy choice the easy choice," and that would be at the root of many of the strategies for promoting health if WOW can get an official project started in Washtenaw County.


WOW, in conjunction with an official Blue Zone team, would implement a variety of strategies. Those could include educating residents and food service providers about how to make healthy choices more convenient and affordable, creating workshops where participants can think about and hone in on their purpose in life, and encouraging walking clubs and programs to showcase the benefits of regular, moderate exercise.


WOW members are hoping to achieve results similar to those described in testimonials on the Blue Zones website, showing that communities that implement the program see significant reductions in smoking and obesity rates, increased rates of community involvement and volunteerism, and lower costs to insurers and employers as residents' health improves.


Tritten says the Blue Zones team would also consider whether WOW has "a broad base of community support" in the county.


WOW team members are in that early phase now, getting the word out and building that needed community support by talking with healthcare providers, local nonprofits, churches, and government officials.


"Rather than reinventing the wheel, we're trying to meet with groups in Washtenaw County, finding out what initiatives they're already working on," WOW executive committee member Dr. Melissa Sundermann says.


Another strategy for getting the word out is WOW's plan to host a nine-month wellness series with the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. WOW will sponsor a movie that relates to one of the nine principles each month. After the screening, there would be a discussion session with a local health professional, and a table with information about WOW and its mission would be available before and after each screening.


Titles, dates, and times haven't been confirmed yet. Tritten says film selections could include "Eat, Fast, and Live Longer," a documentary that would relate to the benefits of calorie reduction; "The Way," starring Martin Sheen as an example of the benefits of exercise; or "The Game Changers," which focuses on plant-based nutrition.


"It will probably be a mix of mainstream movies and documentaries," Tritten says.


Challenges and assets


WOW members say Washtenaw County already has a number of assets that align with Blue Zone principles.


Sundermann mentions the county's Border-to-Border trail system and says that "safe non-motorized pathways throughout the community … for families to walk and jog and birdwatch (are) a wonderful asset."


Having the University of Michigan in the heart of Washtenaw County, a progressive local government interested in sustainability, and a number of farmers markets throughout the county providing easy access to fresh produce are also great advantages, she says.


Another WOW executive committee member, Dr. Robert Breakey, mentions hike-bike paths as an asset, along with "forward-thinking leadership" in Ann Arbor.


One challenge, though, is the economic disparity between the wealthiest and most economically challenged in the county. Tritten says when low-income families are dealing with pressing problems ranging from living in high-crime areas to struggling to put food on the table, trying to eat healthy isn't at the forefront of their mind.


"They're dealing with these serious issues, so when it comes to eating, they often grab what's quick and cheap," Tritten says. He says Ypsilanti has less of a "food desert" problem and more of a "food swamp" problem, with many unhealthy fast food options clustered in some of the poorest areas.


"People's food choices are not very good unless you have money," Tritten says. "The socioeconomic divide that is present in the area is the biggest challenge."


Still, WOW leaders hope that a Blue Zone project could help change that. When Breakey talks with Washtenaw County community members about WOW's mission, he says the natural question that comes up is: When is the Blue Zones project coming here?


"We need to build a critical mass of community leaders over the next nine or 10 months," Breakey says. "We're building awareness and getting the word out, and by this fall we'll be well-positioned to speak to those community leaders and really put this into action."


More information about Blue Zones is available at BlueZones.com. More information about Washtenaw Optimal Wellness is available at WashtenawOptimalWellness.org.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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