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High Altitude Research Center seeks to solve the mysteries of health at altitude

FRISCO — With more than 30,000 people living at 8,000 feet and above, Summit County is a truly unique place. There are few communities of its size and history in North America, and relatively little is known about the physiological effects of living at elevation.

That makes Summit a prime area for medical research. St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, in association with the University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center, are creating a “living laboratory” out of Summit with the High Altitude Research Center. The center will seek to gather data on the effects of high elevation on the human body, with the ultimate goal of solving the mysteries of elevation-related illnesses and effects on human physiology.

Dr. Marshall Denkinger, chief medical informatics officer for Centura Health, said the research center’s initial endeavor will be a two-year, population-based study that will gather basic demographic and vital physical information about permanent or long-term residents of the county.

“We’re looking at what prevalence of altitude-related or potentially altitude-related conditions look like in the community,” Denkinger said. “We want to look across race, age and gender and involve as many people as we can to get a representative sample of the community. We would love it to be five to eight thousand subjects.”

The study model and specifics of how the study will be administered have not been finalized yet, nor submitted for approval to an institutional review board. Studies that involve human subjects require approval from boards like these to ensure the integrity of the study, flesh out or remedy flaws in the research design, as well as ensure the study is done ethically and safely.

Denkinger said that while the details of the study are not finalized, he and the rest of the team behind the research center know what they want to get out of the study.

“A part of a population-based study is to find out what we don’t know,” Denkinger said. “We do know altitude affects oxygen levels in people’s blood stream, triggers adaptions such as increased red blood cells and affects the efficiency of how our body uses oxygen. Many people have sleeping difficulties at higher altitude. But there is no other high altitude population that’s over two generations old that can be studied this in depth.”

Denkinger said other studies have been done on high-elevation populations around the world but never with cohorts of more than 200 people nor studied long enough to come up with definitive conclusions. Denkinger said Summit County — with is existing community, facilities and desire for knowledge — is a perfect testing ground for a study on elevation health.

As far as what subjects the research center will be looking for, Denkinger said the study would prefer people who live in the county year-round or at least six months out of the year. There also would be a preference for people who have lived in the county and the surrounding area for at least two or three years. Aside from basic information, the study would gather vital medical information, such as height, weight, blood pressure and other data.

Much of the funding for the research center has been taken care of through local fundraisers, and individual and organizational donations. The research center still is pursuing grants for funding and expects to receive more grants after the study launches and the knowledge gleaned from it leads to more interest and grant money in the future.

Ultimately, Denkinger said the research center wants the study to be the foundation for other research and studies that offshoot from it, similar to the Framingham heart study that has followed three generations of subjects in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. He sees the Summit County community’s support for the study as an essential element in its success, citing as an example the community’s interest in the Summit Daily’s 2018 Longevity Project, which investigated why people live longer in the mountains.

“I and the (High Altitude Research Center) are really excited to really give back to the community by giving them information that can make them more healthy,” Denkinger said. “People here care about health and wellness issues, about what impact physiological and atmospheric conditions may have on their health. We are really fortunate to have great providers, great health care facilities, amazing patients and community members who are really interested in taking that data and incorporating it into healthier lifestyle.”

Tony Buettner with the Blue Zones Project speaks in Breckenridge for The Longevity Project

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the Summit Daily News presented speaker Tony Buettner, with the Blue Zones Project, at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. More than 300 people attended “The Longevity Project” event, which also featured a Q&A session with health experts.

To find the path to long life and health, the Blue Zones team study the world’s “Blue Zones,” communities whose elders live with vim and vigor to record-setting age. Buettner’s presentation focused on common diet and lifestyle habits that keep people in the world’s Blue Zones spry past age 100.

As part of the presentation, the Summit Daily News presented a video showcasing the High Country’s “super seniors,” and their views on the secrets to a long life. Watch the video here:

The Longevity Project was a four-part series featured weekly in the Summit Daily News, focusing on topics such as longevity, health challenges and senior living in the mountains. Click here to find all the stories and videos on our Longevity Project page.

More videos can be found with each of The Longevity Project stories.

Part 1: Why do residents of Colorado’s mountain towns live longer than anyone else in the U.S.?

Part 2: How do Colorado’s long-lived mountain towns stack up to the rest of the world?

Part 3: Despite nation-leading longevity, Colorado mountain communities face significant health challenges

Part 4: Colorado mountain towns struggle to accommodate a surge of seniors

The Longevity Project | Part 4: Colorado mountain towns struggle to accommodate a surge of seniors

Anna Crane at her home in Frisco Jan. 23. (All photos by Hugh Carey / hcarey@summitdaily.com)

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a four-part series.

Eighty-three-year-old Anne Crane sits in her Frisco home with her cat, Winnie. “She was found in a Winnebago, so I named her Winnie,” Crane says while scratching the 3-year-old feline behind the ear. Winnie is Crane’s only regular company at home now that her husband Ed, who is 94, had to move down to Arvada for long-term care.

Anne and Ed Crane have devoted countless hours to helping Summit’s senior community. In 1977, the Cranes were among the original 17 Summit residents to found Summit County Senior Citizens, Inc. The nonprofit group has now grown to 2,000 members, and through its partnership with Summit County government provides resources and services for seniors. In 2015, Summit County passed a resolution honoring and recognizing Anne “for her contribution to the betterment of Summit County.”

The Cranes were also a driving force behind the funding and opening of the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco back in 2002, and Anne still spends a lot of time volunteering there.

“They’ve both been very helpful volunteer-wise within the center,” said Lorie Williams, manager of the Senior Center. “They contributed a lot of time, and truly care about it. They’re amazing people.”

The Senior Center provides a wide variety of services and resources for Summit seniors, including social activities, medical assistance and the Mountain Meals on Wheels program for homebound seniors. Already strained for resources and staff, Williams said it’s just getting busier and busier.

“We have just under 2,000 members at the senior center,” she said, “and about 500 or 600 come around regularly. And we’re seeing more every year.”

Castle Peak Senior Life and Rehabilitation Center’s common area Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Eagle.

Williams is on the frontline of an aging boom in the mountains. According to the U.S. Census, Eagle County’s population of residents 65 and over went from 5.6 percent of the total population (2,900 seniors) in 2010, to 9.3 percent (5,000 seniors) in 2016. In Summit, the senior population went from 7.7 percent (2,100 seniors) to 11.9 percent (3,600 seniors) in 2016. The median age in Eagle rose from 31.2 in 2000 to 35.9 in 2016, while Summit’s median age went from 33.3 to 38.2 over the same period.

Erin Fisher is director of the Alpine Area Agency on Aging, which helps seniors and caregiver access health services in the five mountain counties of Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Pitkin and Summit. She said that mountain communities have some of the fastest growing senior populations in the state. “Summit’s senior population is estimated to grow by 199 percent by 2050 and Eagle County by 274 percent in the same time frame,” she said.

For the past three weeks, this series aimed to find out why mountain counties like Eagle and Summit have the highest age expectancy in the country. In this installment, we will focus on the challenges created by that longevity, as mountain communities built for play contend with the needs of their aging residents.

(Video by Hugh Carey)

Silver rush

The aging issue is national in scope. U.S. Census issued a report predicting that by 2050, the population of Americans 65 and over will reach 83.7 million, roughly double the senior population in 2012. The growth rate of the senior population will eventually outpace the working-age population, leading to an increasing reliance on immigrants to bolster the American workforce, according to the census.

An older population also means more medical spending. The 65-and-over citizens only make up 14 percent of the total population, but account for 34 percent of all health care spending, says the Center for Medicare and Medicaid. And according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the cost of health care more than doubles between the ages of 70 and 90.

Castle Peak Senior Life and Rehabilitation Center resident, Carole Litt, right, goes through strengthening exercises led by her occupational therapist Erin Velpel during a session Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the assisted living facility in Eagle.

Seniors in the mountains face the same health issues as most others living at altitude, such as pulmonary hypertension, pulmonary edema and sleep apnea. However, seniors are also particularly susceptible to slip-and-fall accidents with the area’s long winters. “As people get older, the risk of serious injury from falls and deaths far surpasses the risk of car accidents,” said Dr. Jules Rosen, chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health in Frisco and former chief of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. “Once you pass the age of 60 your risk of serious injury or death goes up exponentially compared to car accidents.”

Rosen explained that the risks of falls are magnified with osteoporosis, which is caused by bone loss later in life. Osteoporosis results in weak and brittle bones that are more susceptible to fractures and breaks. Rosen said that seniors often mistakenly believe that their active lifestyles reduce their risk of serious injury from falls on the sidewalk or on the slopes. “While being active is a protective factor, it does not prevent bone loss,” Rosen said.


Why does Summit County, and other prosperous Colorado mountain counties, have the highest life expectancy in the country? Speaker Tony Buettner, with the Blue Zones Project, will provide science-based answers on Tuesday, Feb. 27 during the Summit Daily News’ “The Longevity Project” event at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. The event begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are available here. In Buettner’s talk, he will share the 9 common diet and lifestyle habits that keep them spry past age 100. Click here to read more.

Paul Chodkowski, CEO of St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, said that the hospital recognized that injuries from falls were a significant risk to seniors in high alpine environments, and accordingly instituted a “Stepping On” education workshop to help seniors avoid those injuries. The program trains seniors to recognize and address common tripping hazards at home, as well as what it takes to navigate safely in icy, wintry conditions.

“It’s been a very positive program,” Chodkowski said. “Seniors build strength and confidence, and (it) helps ensure that they can stick around in the mountains long term.”

While there has been some progress addressing seniors’ needs, there is still a long way to go. Lorie Williams often facilitates medical transport for seniors who need to see specialists down in Denver because they can’t find the same specialists in mountain towns.

“We don’t have gerontologists, rheumatologists and other specialists seniors need to keep living up here,” Williams said. “We help them get to their specialists so they can keep living here as long as they possibly can, but sometimes they go down for treatment or rehab and don’t come back.”

Rosen added that there is a lack of specialists for geriatric cognitive conditions in the region, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. He has also seen seniors who develop dementia due to multiple brain injuries suffered during their active lifestyle. However, there is a lack of knowledge about these conditions and how they affect seniors at altitude, which Rosen attributes to a lack of emphasis on senior issues.

“We have a very caring, generous community here, but senior care just has not been part of the discussion,” Rosen said. Rosen added that the lack of motivation to increase care for seniors is partially one of perception, as active folks in Summit may have a different view on what is considered a “disability.”

“The concept of disability is not what is happening to me as an individual, it’s happening to me as an individual in the context of my environment,” Rosen said. “If I get diabetes and develop a foot ulcer, I can live with it. But if I don’t have adequate support to deal with it day to day, that’s a disability.”

Castle Peak Senior Life and Rehabilitation Center residents interact with employee Stephanie Sheridan, middle, who is the Volunteer Services Director, inside the dining room Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Eagle.

Finding Solutions

Eagle is home to one of the only assisted living facility for seniors in the mountains with the Castle Peak Senior Life and Rehabilitation Center. The facility, which opened in late 2015 and built on land donated by Eagle County, is managed by Augustana Care, a nonprofit based in Minnesota which manages senior care facilities across the country and includes 44 skilled nursing units, 20 assisted living apartments and 10 transitional care units. Castle Peak’s marketing director Monica McCarroll said that a memory care wing with 12 beds could open as soon as this spring. At the moment, 28 skilled nursing units and 15 assisted living apartments are occupied.

McCaroll said that the facility came about because of strong local support and collaboration.

“Elected officials, community groups and residents came together to really push for a facility here, and it is because of that collaboration that seniors are able to get the care they need in Eagle.”

Augustana Care also considered building a facility in Frisco to serve Summit County residents back in 2015. At the time, the plan was to create a senior housing and care facility on a 4.5-acre site called “Hillside Parcel” near St. Anthony and overlooking the Summit Fire Authority training center. However, Summit County manager Scott Vargo said that the plans fell through for financial and logistical reasons.

Castle Peak Senior Life and Rehabilitation Center employee Stephanie Sheridan leads a class session with the residents  Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Eagle.

“At the end of the day, it just didn’t feel like an appropriate site,” Vargo said. “The developer felt that the infrastructure costs to get water and sewer to that site were too steep. There were also concerns about placing a residential facility right above the fire training facility, as well as noise concerns from a sand and salt facility that is planned near the site.”

With the high cost of real estate in the mountains Vargo said that finding another site for a senior facility is going to be challenging. He is not aware of any other plans for a senior facility Summit.

“We certainly recognize the need for such a facility,” he said, “and the county is open to working with seniors and developers to find an appropriate site.”

Chodkowski said another important reason the plans fell through was because there aren’t enough seniors who need those services in Summit.

“In order to run a long-term care facility, it requires certain critical mass of numbers for the care provider to justify the cost involved,” Chodkowski said. “Augustana looked at the marketplace here and realized here the senior population didn’t quite reach the threshold for opening a facility in Summit.”

Williams also noted that the problem of workforce housing comes into play, as workers at a new facility will need somewhere to live.

“It’s so very expensive to live here,” she said, “and their doctors, specialists and staff would need to find an affordable place to live. We have enough problems with affordable housing as it is.”

Rosen said that even while recognizing the need for more senior services, altruism won’t be enough to attract them and medical research for senior health needs in the mountains.

“In order for science to spread, it has to have an economic anchor,” he said. “People won’t do something just because it’s good for community health or the right thing to do. It’ll have to be beneficial economically, as well.”

Rosen offers some solutions to the medical needs for seniors in the mountains, such as collaborating with institutions on the Front Range.

“The University of Colorado School of Medicine has an amazing program for geriatric medicine,” Rosen said. “We should try to tap into that resource and bring in a team including specialists in geriatric mental health, geriatric social work and geriatric medicine. Maybe we can do a once-a-month clinic.”

Castle Peak Senior Life and Rehabilitation Center resident Larry Youse, 69, who’s left arm is paralyzed, gets help with putting on a bib during lunch break inside the dining room Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Eagle.

Looking forward

Anne and Ed Crane, who spent much of their adult lives trying to bring joy and purpose to Summit’s senior community, find themselves separated because Summit didn’t have the services they need. Eventually, Anne may leave Summit when she is no longer able to live independently, and the county will lose another one of its upstanding citizens.

Erin Fisher, director of the Alpine Area Agency on Aging, believes that more affordable, accessible senior facilities are urgently needed in the mountains to make sure people like the Cranes can live here as long as they want.

“Summit doesn’t have any senior housing or long-term care facilities,” she said, “so if aging in your own home isn’t an option, you’re forced to leave the community. Interestingly, our senior gap analysis showed that while people overwhelmingly think this is a good place to live with a good quality of life, they are much less likely to recommend retiring here due to the high cost of living and housing costs.”

Fisher added that she has hope for the future based on rising local political support for senior care.

“I’m encouraged that the state produced and continues to update a Strategic Action Plan on Aging and Governor John Hickenlooper recently appointed the state’s first senior advisor on aging. While we need a comprehensive vision to help guide the state legislators and planners, we also need to make sure our local officials understand the complexities and opportunities of our local aging population.”

Fisher added that seniors have the power to bring about change, but she does not want to see an intergenerational struggle take place over resources.

“Seniors are a very vocal group, and they are very involved,” she said. “They have the political and financial clout to see things happen. And this is a problem faced all across America. You’ll see these issues coming to the forefront. But I don’t want to see a situation where we’re pitting communities against each other, such as a fight for resources between seniors and children. What can serve one community can benefit everyone.”

The Longevity Project | Part 3: Despite nation-leading longevity, Colorado mountain communities face significant health challenges

Gretchen Tilden at her home Thursday, Jan. 25, in Frisco. Tilden suffered a serious brain injury in 2013 when she was hit by an out of control snowboarder on Copper Mountain. (All photos by Hugh Carey / hcarey@summitdaily.com)

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a four-part series from the Summit Daily News. Read Part 1: What’s the secret behind Colorado mountain towns’ peerless longevity? Part 2: Is Summit County a Blue Zone, a designation for areas around the world that have a high number of centenarians? Part 4 will print Feb. 23: We live longer here, but when it comes to caring for our aging population, many mountain communities fall short.

Frisco resident Gretchen Tilden is 85 years old, and she spends much of her time these days painting. Tilden is engaging in art therapy to cope with the lingering effects of a serious brain injury she suffered back in 2013. Before the injury, Tilden was a physical force of nature. She was a ski instructor in Keystone for 15 years after moving to Summit in 1990, and never had any noticeable health issues.

But then came the fateful day in 2013 when she was hit by an out-of-control snowboarder at Copper Mountain Resort.

“I went flying in the air and came down directly on my head,” Tilden recalls. “I had an internal brain hemorrhage. They took me to Denver on Flight for Life, and the doctors didn’t think I would survive the night.”

However, Tilden beat the odds and survived. “The doctors kept saying, ‘I can’t believe she’s alive, she’s 80!’”

Unfortunately, Tilden’s survival came at a sharp cost. “I lost my sense of smell and taste, and I have constant vertigo. It’s cost me a lot.”

Brain injuries are one significant risk factor for the fearless, active seniors in Summit, but there are other concerns as well.

At first glance, Colorado’s central mountain towns seem to have most of the ingredients for a long, happy life: breathtaking scenery, clean air, healthy people and a bounty of outdoor recreational activity that draws hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. It’s no wonder we have the highest life expectancy in the country.

Dig below the surface, though, and you’re likely to find some sobering truths.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Annual Report, the mountain counties of Eagle, Pitkin, Routt and Summit ranked in the top 10 among all Colorado counties in health outcomes. However, Eagle and Summit also tied for having the highest rate of excessive drinking in the state. Mountain counties also scored poorly when it came to physical environment because of a severe housing shortage.

For the working people in our mountain communities, those truths are evident every day. Some residents rely on free community dinners because they spend what little they have on rent. They might not be able to afford health insurance or afford the specialist who can diagnose and treat their hidden heart condition. To pay for a roof overhead, one might need to hold two or three jobs. To cope with the stress, they might turn to heavy drinking or other self-destructive vices. During the shoulder seasons, when most homes sit empty and when friends move away, they get lonely.

These are people whose quiet suffering is rarely reflected in the cheery statistics about mountain life.

In the past two installments of The Longevity Project, the Summit Daily explored reasons why Summit and Eagle counties have the highest life expectancy in the country. In this installment, we look at the areas where we fall short.


Watch: The 38th annual Summit County 50+ Winter Games took place earlier this week. Summit’s super seniors competed in everything from giant slalom, figure skating, an obstacle course, a biathlon, a snowshoe race and more. (All videos by Hugh Carey and Heather Jarvis)

High living, high costs

An obvious bit of news for anyone who has tried to find a place to live or gone grocery shopping in the mountains: It’s really expensive to live up here.

Just ask Dillon Mayor Kevin Burns. Back in December he announced he would not seek another four-year term as mayor this April, citing the high cost of living.

“Dillon is a very tough place for young professionals and young married couples trying to establish their lives, and that certainly affects me,” Burns said at the time. “The chances of me staying in Dillon are pretty remote, and I think it’s only fair to give someone who is more confident they can serve an entire term a chance.”

To understand the housing problem, take a look at home sale listings on Zillow or any other real estate listing page. The median price for a single family home currently on the market is $789,000. Only 12 apartments or condos are currently available for rent on Zillow, with the average rent at $1,900 per month.

A person earning $40,000 a year may wind up spending half their paycheck on rent alone. A household is considered “cost-burdened” by spending just over 30 percent of gross income on rent. The 2015 Self Sufficiency Standard for Colorado report issued by the Colorado Center on Law & Policy found that families in Summit have to make much more to afford basic necessities such as housing, child care and food.

“A Summit County family with one adult and one preschooler, for example, needs an annual income of $59,595 to make ends meet, more than three and a half times the federal benchmark (for poverty),” the report concluded.

Summit County resident since 1987, Craig Woodring, 66, is bi-polar has not worked in many years due to his disability. “When I moved here, I made this my home. I don’t think I have to move and live somewhere else because I can’t afford to live in my home, just because I am disabled and old,” says Woodring, who chose to live close to family living in Summit County.

Craig “Corky” Woodring, a local artist and former construction company owner who spent much of the past three decades living in Summit, doesn’t see the county doing enough to support the people who actually live here.

“People can’t afford to live here,” Woodring said. “They come to work here, but when they start a family they need to move away to buy a house. You have to work three jobs to survive. The employers don’t want to pay a living wage.”


Why does Summit County, and other prosperous Colorado mountain counties, have the highest life expectancy in the country? Speaker Tony Buettner, with the Blue Zones Project, will provide science-based answers on Tuesday, Feb. 27 during the Summit Daily News’ “The Longevity Project” event at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. The event begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are available here. In Buettner’s talk, he will share the 9 common diet and lifestyle habits that keep them spry past age 100. Click here to read more.

Woodring also believes that the bedrock of a stable community — a foundation made up of long time residents and middle-class families — doesn’t really exist in Summit.

“Summit doesn’t have the solid base. The jobs are seasonal, the pay is (low), you can’t afford insurance to carry yourself through. There’s a whole segment of society that is missing.”

Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family and Intercultural Resource Center in Silverthorne, regularly helps people who struggle to afford living in the mountains.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at housing, health care or child care, costs are higher in Summit County,” Drangstveit said. Her clients often pay 40 to 50 percent of their income on housing, and 15 to 20 percent each on health care and child care.

“That doesn’t leave a lot of money at the end for things like food, clothing and other necessities.”

Dr. Ali Mokdad is a co-author of the study by the Institute of Health Metrics of Evaluation that placed Summit County at the top for life expectancy. He said that while socioeconomic factors do have a large impact on life expectancy, they aren’t necessarily the most important.

“While health is correlated to socioeconomic issues primarily, you can be poor and still be healthy if you engage in the right behaviors.” Mokdad points to places like Yuma County, Arizona, which has a relatively low average income but managed to raise their life expectancy by eight years since the last study. Poor life expectancy, Mokdad explained, is primarily driven by behavioral issues, such as obesity, poor nutrition and excess drinking.

The Human Environment

But part of the problem for making those lifestyle changes is living in an environment that does not encourage them. In his Blue Zones books, author and explorer Dan Buettner proposed that the most sustainable way to improve a community’s life expectancy is to “reshape the environment” to steer people toward better habits and better lifestyles.

He identified one key common trait across all Blue Zones communities: walkability. While counties like Summit have an exceptional trail and recreation path network, they don’t necessarily link to all the places people need to go. Many of those places are only accessible by car.

Dr. C. Louis Perrinjaquet, of High Country Healthcare, talks with his patient Keith Synnestvedt Thursday, Feb. 15, at the clinic in Breckenridge.

“Parts of Summit County are walkable,” Drangstveit said, “but places like the Dillon Valley are not. The county has done walkability studies, and there’s been a lot of work done, but there’s a long way to go. There needs to be better linking of middle-class neighborhoods to the trail and path network, as well as to the needed services like grocery stores and health care.”

Another issue in Summit is a relative lack of food accessibility. The public can look up local food accessibility statistics through the Food Research Atlas, an interactive map tool provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find areas that are considered “food deserts” because of their lack of access to a variety of healthy food.

While healthy fruits, vegetables, grains and beans are usually available at grocery stores, over 1 in 20 Summit households are in a situation where they don’t have access to a vehicle and live more than half a mile from the nearest grocery source. That means they have to take long, burdensome trips by foot to the supermarket, or rely on public transportation and be at the mercy of its schedule.

Physical Health Factors

Living at altitude isn’t for everybody, especially people who have difficulty breathing or other cardiovascular issues. Sometimes those issues are not readily apparent and pose serious threats to long-term health. Cardiac failure continues to be the leading cause of death in Summit County and nationwide.

Dr. Peter Lemis said that one of the biggest health concerns at altitude are hypoxia, a lack of oxygen reaching tissues and pulmonary edema — a cardiac condition that can cause fluid buildup in the lungs.

“We have 20 percent less oxygen up here,” Lemis said, “and for people with pre-existing cardiovascular issues, those are exacerbated. People who have pre-existing medical conditions don’t usually move here.”

Lemis added that people with those conditions who do move up here often have to move away, as do people who have to move away due to other serious illnesses or injuries. That, he believes, is part of the reason life expectancy is so high in the mountains.

“When people get critically ill, and in danger of dying, they often need to move to a tertiary care center down in Denver. That’s why we don’t have many people die here.”

Dr. Jules Rosen, chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health in Frisco and former chief of geriatric psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, added that because most people living in Summit weren’t born here, they aren’t acclimated to the conditions.

Dr. Jules Rosen in his office at the Summit County Care Clinic Thursday, Feb. 15, in Breckenridge.

“Take the sherpas in the Himalayas,” Dr. Rosen offers as an example. “Some genetic studies show that sherpas are genetically different from most of us us.”

Dr. Rosen explained the body’s usual response to living in a place with less oxygen than what the organs need is to produce higher hematocrit levels, or red blood cells to carry that oxygen. The risks of having high hematocrit levels include blood clots and other serious conditions.

However, despite the lack of oxygen in the Himalayas, those sherpas test for lower hematocrit levels.

“People who live in the Himalayas, whose genetic line stretches hundreds of thousands of years, have become genetically attuned to the conditions,” Rosen said, “but most who come to live here are not genetically selected to live here.”

Dr. Rosen added that there are significant risk factors for seniors, like bone change. Being healthy and active doesn’t slow that down.

“Being active is a protective factor, but it doesn’t prevent bone degeneration,” Rosen said. “Even if they are active, they may have osteoporosis. If you slip on ice and break a hip, you have the same risks and complications as everyone else does.”

Rosen also said that falls are one of the biggest safety concerns for seniors.

“As people get older, the risk of serious injury from falls and deaths far surpasses the risk of car accidents. Once you pass the age of 60 your risk of serious injury or death goes up exponentially compared to car accidents.”

Paul Chodkowski is CEO of St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, a Level III trauma center and the largest health services provider in Summit. Early in his tenure, Chodkowski recognized the need for more study about health effects at altitude, especially as we age.


In anticipation of The Longevity Project event, the Summit Daily will host a book discussion of “The Blues Zones” from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 21 at the Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center at 103 South Harris Street. Buy a copy of the book for $14 (cash or check) at Summit Daily offices located at 331 W. Main Street in Frisco. RSVP with Editor Ben Trollinger at btrollinger@summitdaily.com

“For every 1,000 feet, there’s an expotential effect on the body,” Chodkowski said. “It’s much harder on the cardiovascular system to live at 9,000 feet than at 7,000 feet.”

Chodkowski found that there was a rising senior population in the area, and realized the importance of addressing their needs. He wound up hiring Summit’s first local full-time cardiologist, Dr. Warren Johnson.

“Dr. Johnson started seeing patients who had cardiology issues, and they are significant at altitude,” Chodkowski said. “He began to see that there is a higher prevalence of pulmonary hypertension in our population.”

Though little research exists about the physical health effects of living at altitude, Chodkowski said that Johnson’s work produced positive developments.

“Dr. Johnson started collecting patient information and data, and eventually that led to the development of a High Altitude Research Center that we’re in the process of working on.”

Chodkowski said that he hopes the research will help find better solutions and care for altitude-related illnesses and chronic diseases.

Mental health

In 2017, Eagle County recorded 13 suicides, the most anyone in the county can remember for a single year.  In 2016, Summit County also had a near-record number of suicides, but in 2017 that number dropped significantly, a dose of good news that underscores the strides that mental health advocates have made locally in the last year.

However, the struggle to bolster mental wellness in the mountains is far from over.

In working with her clients at FIRC, Drangstveit believes stress continues to be major contributing factor. “When regular people are struggling to keep three jobs while trying to support their family, it builds up a lot of toxic stress – stress that you can’t really get rid of. It leads to depression, anxiety and general unhappiness.”

Corky Woodring had his life shattered by mental illness. He once had a family, his own construction company and a relatively comfortable life in Summit. But depression and bipolar disorder made him lose it all, and he was forced to move to Pennsylvania for a time. There, he was briefly institutionalized to treat his mental illness.

“In Pennsylvania, I started to get better. They have a much better mental health support system out there. But back then, there was nothing for mental health in Summit.”

Carlos Santos is an independent living coordinator and peer counselor at the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence, a nonprofit that helps persons with disabilities and others obtain the help and resources they need to live independently. He regularly comes across individuals with mental health concerns.

“What I’ve seen is that a lot of these folks come up to the mountains to get away from their problems, but obviously it doesn’t always work,” Santos said. “They look at it as a bit of escapism, but then reality sets in. They struggle to afford the cost of living, and they don’t know how to navigate the system out here to get the resources they need.”

Santos added that while Summit and Eagle have done a good job improving accessibility to mental health resources, there are a lot of people who work here but live in Park and Lake counties.

“Out in Park and Lake, the bedroom communities, there isn’t a lot of outreach to help them where they live,” he said. “They can’t always access the resources that are available in Eagle and Summit.”

The Building Hope initiative is a grassroots community mental health initiative that is trying to address gaps in Summit County’s support network. Program Manager Betsy Casey believes that along with cost of living, the very nature of mountain communities make residents susceptible to depression.

“We have long, cold winters that are nine months long instead of six months,” Casey said, “and combined with the isolation for young people who come here without a support network, it creates a perfect storm.”
That isolation is compounded, Casey said, by the fact that mountain resort towns are transient communities, where people come and go and stable relationships are hard to maintain. Many turn to drinking or substance abuse to self-medicate as a result.

Dr. Rosen believes that there may also be some physical reasons for poor mental health in the mountains. One concern he highlights is “nocturnal oxygen desaturation,” or low oxygen levels during sleep because of conditions such as central sleep apnea. That lack of oxygen and poor sleep may lead to psychological issues down the line.

“Sleep apnea is a hidden danger, and a real risk factor for people living at altitude,” Dr. Rosen said. “It causes fatigue, low energy levels and can also lead to depression, anxiety and other emotional problems. But we don’t know enough about it, and we really need to.”

Dr. Rosen added that those mental health issues, whether environmental or biological in nature, might lead to dangerous behaviors such as binge drinking.

“Alcohol is a depressogenic, it causes depression. Excess drinking alters your brain chemistry and hormone levels, and might make existing mental health conditions worse.”

Dr. Rosen added that excess inebriation creates a secondary concern — falls. “You’re more likely to die from a fall on ice or snow around here if you’re drunk than getting into a drunk driving accident. It can also seriously affect your sleep, which can cause issues with blood pressure and feeds into the cycle of stress and poor health.”

Dr. Rosen said that he and Dr. Lemis have been hoping to do a serious study about sleep apnea at altitude. Chodkowski said that St. Anthony Summit has also been looking into researching sleep apnea and oxygen desaturation.

Dr. Rosen maintains that the physical and mental health issues he mentioned eventually push people out of the mountains, and that is the real reason life expectancy is so high here.

“We have everything going for us here, except time,” Rosen said.  “No matter how successfully you’re aging, time will still march on, and as time gets the better of us, we have to move out.”

Rosen concludes that the high life expectancy in Summit is a bit of a mirage. “People don’t live longer in Summit, they just don’t die in Summit.  They move to Denver.”

To greener pastures

Gretchen Tilden’s brain injury cost her dearly. Because of the chronic vertigo, she had to give up downhill skiing, her true passion. She can’t even do cross country anymore.

Now that she can’t do much of what she loves, Tilden said she is going to wind up moving to the Front Range. “There’s not much more left for me to do up here,” she said. She believes she will be taken care of down in Denver, where senior care services are much more readily available.

Tilden managed to live to a ripe old age by avoiding excess drink, staying active and healthy and keeping a positive mindset. However, the accident left her needing the kind of care she can’t get in the mountains.  She is one of many seniors having to abandon their perch at 9,000 feet because of a lack of senior services.  In our next installment, The Longevity Project will look at whether our mountain communities are doing enough to care for the burgeoning senior population, which has nearly doubled over the past decade.

The Summit Daily asked our readers to tell us about their favorite people over 80 years of age. Click here to view the county’s “Super Seniors.”

VIDEO: Summit County seniors share their tips on living a longer, healthier life

In the month of February, the Summit Daily News produced a four-part series on longevity in the mountains, running on Fridays in print and online features that included multiple videos. The Longevity Project finished on Tuesday, Feb. 27, with a speaker event featuring Tony Buettner of the Blue Zones.

At the final event, the Summit Daily News presented a video showcasing the High Country’s “super seniors,” and their views on the secrets to a long life. Watch the video above.

More videos can be found with each of The Longevity Project stories.

Part 1: Why do residents of Colorado’s mountain towns live longer than anyone else in the U.S.?

Part 2: How do Colorado’s long-lived mountain towns stack up to the rest of the world?

Part 3: Despite nation-leading longevity, Colorado mountain communities face significant health challenges

Part 4: Colorado mountain towns struggle to accommodate a surge of seniors

The Longevity Project | Part 2: How do Colorado’s long-lived mountain towns stack up to the rest of the world?

Bill Greene, who is 88, skis with his wife Margaret, 75, at Loveland Ski Area Thursday, Feb. 8. (All photos by Hugh Carey / hcarey@summitdaily.com)

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a four-part series from the Summit Daily News. Read Part 1 here.

Marie Zdechlik lives in a house with a red-tiled roof off of Fifth Avenue in Frisco. She blows snow off her walkway by herself. She also mows her lawn, drives her car and lives independently.

For most able-bodied people in Summit County, that might not seem like a big deal. However, Marie is exceptional — she’s still lively at 92 years old.

But if you ask her how she’s managed to be this healthy at such an advanced age, she’ll shrug and give you the same answer.

“I don’t know why. It’s not something we ever discussed, why one person lived longer than someone else did. I just did.”

Marie Zdechlik Tuesday, Jan. 30, in Frisco.

And that may just very well be the key to longevity. Living life the right way in the right place, subconsciously, appears to be more effective than fads, diets, exercise routines or other artificial methods of trying to live longer.

That is a conclusion from the Blue Zones Project, an initiative to transform communities to emulate the lifestyles and behaviors of some of the longest living communities on the planet. In this installment of our Longevity Project series, we will delve into the concept of Blue Zones, what makes them special and whether places like Summit and Eagle counties may be considered “Blue Zones.”

Bill Greene, 88, and his wife Margaret, 75, are some of Summit County’s active seniors. They ski, bike, hike — and enjoy doing all of these activities together. (Video by Hugh Carey and Heather Jarvis)


Why does Summit County, and other prosperous Colorado mountain counties, have the highest life expectancy in the country? Speaker Tony Buettner, with the Blue Zones Project, will provide science-based answers on Tuesday, Feb. 27 during the Summit Daily News’ “The Longevity Project” event at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. The event begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are available here. In Buettner’s talk, he will share the 9 common diet and lifestyle habits that keep them spry past age 100. Click here to read more.

The Origin of ‘Blue Zones’

Anthropological researchers Gianni Pes and Dr. Michel Poulain coined the term “Blue Zone” in a paper published in the journal Experimental Gerontology in 2003. The term described specific areas with unusually high concentrations of male centenarians in a mountainous part of the Sardinia region in Italy. Their study found that these Sardinian men lived longer, healthier lives than men in most other parts of the world.

The term reached a mainstream audience with a 2005 National Geographic cover story called “The Secrets of a Long Life” by Dan Buettner. Buettner intended to try to find answers left unanswered by Pes and Poulain’s study by going to areas known for their longevity and studying their people, cultures and environments. He wanted to see what was unique about these communities, as well as to explore whether there was a pattern of shared lifestyles, habits or practices that explained their high life expectancy.

He and a team of researchers travelled to four areas around the world where people seem to live longer – Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and a Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. Buettner eventually wrote a book detailing his findings, titled “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.”

Donna Ozark, right, hugs Brenda Alberico, both who won fun awards for most points in recent Bridge card game competition at the Senior Center in Frisco Monday, Jan. 29.

So what exactly is a ‘Blue Zone’?

The way Buettner sees it, a “Blue Zone” is a place where locals do things “the right way.” According to his book, Blue Zones are “areas of the world with concentrations of some of the world’s longest lived people.” These are “communities where common elements of lifestyle, diet, and outlook have led to an amazing quantity — and quality — of life.”


In anticipation of The Longevity Project event, the Summit Daily will host a book discussion of “The Blues Zones” from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 21 at the Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center at 103 South Harris Street. Buy a copy of the book for $14 (cash or check) at Summit Daily offices located at 331 W. Main Street in Frisco. RSVP with Editor Ben Trollinger at btrollinger@summitdaily.com

Those common elements, Buettner said, are deeply ingrained in the culture of these communities, and aren’t trends or behaviors that were adopted overnight.

“In these Blue Zones areas, people don’t live a long time because they’ve consciously tried to shift their behaviors,” Buettner said. “They lived a long time because they lived in the right environment, an environment that nudges them into doing the right thing for most of their lives, and nudges them away from the wrong thing.”

For an example of how these “nudges” are built into the culture and the social order, in his book Buettner looked closely at the long-living mountain men of Sardinia.

“As a rule, they had worked hard their whole lives as farmers or shepherds,” Buettner wrote. “Their lives unfolded with daily and seasonal routines. They raised families who were now caring for them. Their lives were extraordinarily ordinary,” with the exception being that their communities had an abnormally high number of centenarians.

While Buettner attributes part of that unusual longevity to the specific genetic make-up of Sardinians, he points out that these “ordinary” lives they lead are busy.

“Everyday hikes taken by Sardinian shepherds burn up to 490 calories an hour,” he wrote. That’s the equivalent of two hours of brisk walking, 90 minutes of gardening or two hours of golfing. Sardinian men also lead purpose-driven, family-centered lives that are based on routines, hard work and a wry outlook on life that builds mental toughness and resolve.

Buettner emphasizes that this activity is part of a lifestyle, and not done out of leisure or as part of a trendy, expensive exercise program.

“Most of what we know about what makes us live longer is wrong,” Buettner said. “Exercise, diets, aging serums, supplements — they make somebody a lot of money, and they’re marketed a lot. They might work in the short term, but they fail almost all the time for all the people in the long run.”

So what did Buettner find in common for the lifestyles in these communities that, if adapted into the social order and culture, could lead to longer lives? At the end of his book, he condensed what he learned from the Blue Zone communities into nine lessons:

Be active, move around.

Eat moderately.

Eat more plant-based foods, not meat and processed foods.

Drink red wine.

Have a strong sense of purpose.

Learn how to relax.

Be part of a religious or spiritual community.

Always put family first.

Surround yourself with people who share values 1-8.

Bill Greene, who is 88, skis with his wife Margaret, 75, at Loveland Ski Area Thursday, Feb. 8.

By building these habits, routines, lifestyles and behaviors into the core of their society and culture, Buettner said these Blue Zone residents have unconsciously adopted these healthy lifestyles and even enjoy them.

That, he said, is the key to building a Blue Zone — a lifestyle that can be passed from generation to generation, not temporary changes that may be abandoned because of lack of motivation or enthusiasm.

“When it comes to living longer and healthier, we hope for short-term fix,” Buettner said. “That doesn’t work, a short-term fix doesn’t exist.”

Instead, the Blue Zones project aims to help rebuild communities so that they naturally gravitate to better habits and better lifestyles.

“The purpose of the Blue Zones project is to think comprehensively community-wide on how to reshape the environments we’re living in so that the healthy and happier choice is the default,” Buettner said.

So, at their very essence, Blue Zone areas don’t try to be Blue Zones. People aren’t trying to live longer, they’re not trying to be healthier, they’re not seeking everlasting happiness. It is something that has become so accessible and routine that it’s not something they even need to think about.

Are we living in a Blue Zone?

In short, no.

“There’s no way any place in Colorado will be an official Blue Zones area,” Buettner declared. “America gets a B+ for longevity. These other places have an order of magnitude, like 10 times more centenarians, to qualify to be a Blue Zone.”

What about that dazzling statistic of Summit, Pitkin and Eagle counties having the highest life expectancies in America?

“You deserve credit for high life expectancy, yes. But not to throw a wet blanket on you guys, but that’s like being the valedictorian of summer school. There’s such a long way to go.”

Editor Ben Trollinger interviews Dan Buettner on Blue Zones. Buettner is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way” and “The Blue Zones Solution.”

He isn’t kidding. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report about centenarians in this country. The report stated that at the time, there were 53,364 people aged 100 or older still living in the U.S. That’s a ratio of less than one centenarian for every 5,000 Americans.

Compare that to one village in Sardinia, which was found to have seven centenarians in a population of 2,500.

Buettner points to the relatively high middle age morbidity rate in the U.S. as one reason this country can’t compete with places like Sardinia or Okinawa. In those Blue Zones, people not only live longer, they suffer much less before death.

“The worst cohorts for life expectancy are people dying in their 60s,” Buettner said. “Those people tend to have a long ailing period when they’re suffering from cancer or diabetes. They’re spending vast amounts of health care dollars to live longer. In Blue Zones, that period is compressed. They live a long time, and they die very quickly.”

Buettner agrees with local experts Dr. Jules Rosen, chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health, and Dr. Peter Lemis of Summit Cardiology, that the life expectancy in Colorado’s mountain communities may be artificially inflated due to a self-selection bias. People who are able to live here long term are financially and physically equipped to stay, but if they aren’t they have to leave and die elsewhere.

Rosen, who is also the former chief of geriatric psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, allows that there are some possible benefits to living in the mountains that help with aging.

Brenda Alberico, far right, plays in a Bridge card game competition with others at the Senior Center in Frisco Monday, Jan. 29.

“Enjoyment of the outdoors and physical activity are conducive to successful aging,” Rosen said. “Anything that reduces heart diseases is likely to reduce brain vascular disease. There’s also a lower risk for dementia.”

Rosen added that the lifestyle enjoyed by many here is also conducive for a healthy social life.

“Here, you call friends over to go on a hike, or to go skiing,” he said. “There’s a very natural, pleasurable link between where you live and what you do.”

Ultimately, though, Rosen sees that lifestyle being lived by people lucky enough to do it regularly and without as much concern for things like basic health issues or financial survival.

“It’s really a self-selection of people who choose to live here,” he said. “The people who have to live here because of jobs, if they don’t engage in that self-selected lifestyle, they won’t experience any benefits.”

Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of Summit’s Family and Intercultural Resource Center, believes the quality of life people have in Summit depends a lot on the lifestyle they can afford.

“I definitely think life expectancy depends on the demographic you’re talking about,” she said. “We’ve seen the studies that it’s one of the healthiest populations, but not necessarily the case for sub-populations.”

Drangstveit specifically talks about lower-income populations who struggle to make ends meet in the mountains, who in many cases have to pay the same prices for necessities as affluent people or the visitors do.

“Most of these working people hold two to three jobs,” she said. “Low-income families can’t access all the high-income families can. Aside from cost, they don’t have the time to live the kind of lifestyle that leads to really high life expectancy.”

Other issues are well known to mountain residents, such as high rent and health care costs. This environment creates a social bottleneck, which keeps poorer and less healthy people out.

But Buettner said mountain residents shouldn’t necessarily be ashamed of those high costs. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “The fact that you manufactured a community that justifies high rent, there’s no shame to that. You have a lot of land you conserve, that helps with activities and being close to nature. The rest of America should look at what you’re doing right.”

Marie’s Zone

Marie Zdechlik is a great example of a person who lives this ultimately fruitful lifestyle without even realizing it. While she didn’t consciously adopt the Blue Zone lessons, she certainly lives by most of them and seems to have created her own mini Blue Zone at home.

Zdechlik is originally from Minnesota, growing up on a farm during the Great Depression. She went to nursing school and moved out to Colorado in 1946, after a polio outbreak hit. She was trained to operate the iron lungs and to help treat the disease that was ravaging the nation. She went on to work as a nurse at the Climax mine, which for many years supplied most of the world’s molybdenum.

She stopped working at the mine the day her first child was born in 1954. Aside from occasional stints working as a nurse later in life, she devoted most of her adult life to raising her six children. She and her husband, Bob, built their home in Frisco in 1958, partly with materials they salvaged from Climax. She still lives in that house.

When Marie Zdechlik first moved to Frisco, there were only 97 residents. (Video by Hugh Carey and Heather Jarvis)

Back when she was raising children, Frisco was more of a rural mountain hamlet with 87 residents. “We didn’t have streets around here, or a water or sewer system,” she recalled. “We had to dig our own well to get water.”

There weren’t any parks, playgrounds or any other social areas for children, so she let them play in her yard. For many children, her home became the neighborhood social hub where long-term friendships and community spirit were kindled. But she made sure to impress upon them the need to behave properly, not hurt others and to abide by her ground rules.

“You needed to follow the rules,” Zdechlik said. “If you didn’t follow the rules, you had to go home.”

Zdechlik followed these rules throughout her life. She made sure to eat healthily and moderately, worked hard to raise her family and stayed active with everyday chores. In her leisure time, she skied, golfed and hiked. Without even noticing, she grew to the age of 92 with few health issues aside from the occasional back twinge that keeps her indoors.

When asked if living in Summit had anything to do with living longer, she says she really doesn’t know. “I came out here because of work. Back in those days, nobody really had a lot of money, so we went where the work was. So I didn’t really think of choosing the life here, it’s just how it happened.”

When it comes to advice she has for future generations, one thing she emphasizes is to not stop exploring life, and to leave little room for regrets.

“I haven’t figured out what has caused people to have this attitude, ‘I’ve done everything in life.’ No they haven’t. Absolutely, you never do everything in life. Be happy and go do the things you want to do. If there’s something you really want to see, see it. Don’t have any remorse for things you should’ve or shouldn’t have done.”

The Summit Daily asked our readers to tell us about their favorite people over 80 years of age. Click here to view the county’s “Super Seniors.”

The Longevity Project | Part 1: Why do residents of Colorado’s mountain towns live longer than anyone else in the U.S.?

Frank Skiing

Frank Walter is 95, but that doesn’t stop him from skiing at Copper Mountain Resort, his favorite hill in Summit County. He is one of the remarkable seniors who has earned Summit the distinction of having the highest life expectancy in the country. (All photos by Hugh Carey / hcarey@summitdaily.com)

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a four-part series from the Summit Daily News. Additional parts will appear each Friday this month. Find more information on the Longevity Project and the rest of the series here.

Chuck Kauffman can’t sit still.

Even at 81, Kauffman is more adventurous than most. Part of the reason he bought his house in Dillon is because it’s right on a mountain bike trail. He also skis, paraglides, hikes and helps organize fundraisers for nonprofit groups.

After a Denver-based career in real estate, Kauffmann finally relocated to Summit County in 2003 and quickly caught the bug. It’s a kind of magic (or maybe madness) that attracts people of a certain stripe.

Unlike the regular crowd crawling up Interstate 70 on weekends, these are people who come up to altitude, never leave and never stop. And before they realize it, their hair has turned white and it takes them a little longer to get down the slopes at Copper Mountain Resort, or bike a trail loop in Frisco.

But these octogenarians, nonagenarians and even the odd centenarian still get up and go every day. In fact, the seniors of Summit, Pitkin, Eagle and other mountain counties have the highest life expectancy in the nation.

How do they do it? How do they live such seemingly happy, healthy lives? Does altitude have anything to do with their extended lease on life? What do they eat for breakfast?

Chuck Kauffman Monday, Jan. 29 in Summit Cove.

If you ask some folks in Summit and its neighboring counties, the answer is as clear as the air: It’s just about enjoying life. There’s an energizing force that seems to float off the mountains in puffs of powder. Every day offers a new wonder to explore and a new adventure to take with like-minded friends. Perhaps the fountain of youth melts out of the peaks and flows down into the valleys.

However, the answer likely isn’t so mystical: Medical experts say these marvels of longevity tend to be affluent, educated, physically active, socially engaged and possibly genetically gifted. They don’t smoke, they watch what they eat and they have access to high-quality health care. It’s the mountainous splendor of Colorado that then draws them all together.

In this first installment in a four-part series on longevity, the Summit Daily News will dig deeper into why people in the state’s central mountains live longer than anyone else in the U.S. And as the series progresses over the next three Fridays, we’ll also look at how the Ageless Alps of Colorado stack up against so-called “Blue Zones,” geographically isolated areas throughout the world where people live well into their 100s. Additionally, we’ll weigh the pluses and minuses of mountain culture, where residents play (and drink) hard, but also battle significant mental health challenges and economic inequality. And then we’ll peer into the future to see just how well prepared we are to care for our aging population.

Frank Walter is 95, but that doesn’t stop him from skiing at Copper Mountain Resort, his favorite hill in Summit County. He is one of the remarkable seniors who has earned Summit the distinction of having the highest life expectancy in the country. (All videos by Hugh Carey and Heather Jarvis)


A report published last year by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) set mountain towns abuzz.

Titled “Inequalities in Life Expectancy Among US Counties, 1980 to 2014,” the study found that Summit and neighboring Pitkin and Eagle counties had the highest life expectancies in the nation at 86.83, 86.52 and 85.94 years, respectively.

Meanwhile, a 2014 report published in the Aging and Disease medical journal found an association between living at high altitude and “lower mortality from cardiovascular diseases, stroke, and certain types of cancer.” A previous IHME report found that Summit County had the lowest cancer rate in the country for over 30 years. When it comes to health grades, central Colorado’s mountain counties are at the top of the class.

So what’s their secret?

Frank skiing

Frank Walters skiing at Copper Mountain Wednesday, Jan. 17.Socioeconomic dynamics: Being wealthy and educated helps. A lot, he said. A person born in Summit County, with a median income of $70,192 and half the population touting college degrees (as of 2016), is expected to live 20 years longer than a person born in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, which has a life expectancy of 66.81 years, a median income of $26,330 and around 11 percent of the population attaining a college degree.


To uncover the key to a long life, the IHME looked to death records. Its study then gleaned what impact socioeconomic factors, health care and behavior each had on life expectancy based on Census data at a county level.

Dr. Ali Mokdad, a co-author of the report and a professor of Global Health at UW, explained how each factor weighs in.

But the impact of socioeconomic factors is deeper than the numbers. The right combination of education and wealth allows a person to both be aware of what they need to live longer, as well as being able to afford the means to do so.

“For example,” Dr. Mokdad explains, “a highly educated mother is more likely to understand danger signs for her health or her child. She’s more likely to afford and obtain medical care, more likely to understand medical advice and implement it.”

Socioeconomic factors also affect awareness and affordability of a balanced diet, physical fitness and avoidance of risk factors such as smoking and excess drinking. Being well-off also affords individuals more opportunities for recreational and social activities, which can impact physical and mental health, and by extension, life expectancy.

Health care: Similarly, access and proximity to solid health insurance and quality health care is based in large part on geography and income. Summit County has a level III trauma center in St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, and Eagle County has an assisted living center for seniors in Castle Peak Senior Care Community. When it comes to life-or-death emergencies, every second matters. Dr. Mokdad, who is based in Seattle, gives an example of what that means in practice.

Frank Walter, Jan. 16, in Copper.

“Say I have a heart attack, here in Seattle,” he said. “It would take 10 minutes for me to get admitted to one of the best medical centers in the country.”

On the other hand, a person in rural Eastern Washington, or in the western plains of Colorado, might be hours away from the nearest trauma center. According to the Colorado Rural Health Center, 85 percent of Americans can reach a level I or level II trauma center within an hour, but only 24 percent of rural Americans can do so within that timeframe, helping explain why 60 percent of all trauma deaths occur in rural areas.

The type and quality of medical specialists available locally or regionally also contributes to the health care factor. While many mountain communities like Summit lack full-time specialists in some areas, access to treatments for chronic illnesses has been improving. St. Anthony opened a specialty care and infusion center last year that offers chemotherapy and IV treatment for other chronic diseases like Crohn’s disease.

“We’re a county that has a hospital and medical care, unlike other rural areas that don’t have access to good medical care,” said Dr. Peter Lemis, a cardiologist practicing in Frisco at Summit Cardiology. “The emergency response teams, and the fact that we have a hospital here … definitely contribute to the health of the county and have helped save many lives.”

Behavioral and metabolic risks: The IHME study found that preventative behavioral risk factors such as smoking, drinking, drug use and obesity have the most to do with longevity, accounting for 74 percent of the variation in life expectancy between counties. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the life expectancy for smokers is 10 years less than non-smokers. A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study has found that extreme obesity can reduce life expectancy by up to 14 years. Both are major risk factors for cancer.

Dr. Mokdad said that managing preventable risk factors is crucial because it can counteract the socioeconomic factors that would normally hobble life expectancy.

“There is a county in Arizona that has improved tremendously despite the odds,” he said, referring to Yuma County, Arizona, which has a relatively low income level of around $41,000 yet has seen an eight-year jump in life expectancy over the past 20 years.

That kind of improvement in life expectancy is based largely on the proper management of preventable risk factors either at a social or policy level, which can turn around the economic fortunes of a town.

“You need to be healthy to get out of poverty,” he said.

Chuck Kauffman talks about his lifestyle at 81, and what he thinks is the key to living long.


Up in the mountains, being healthy seems to come naturally. Eagle County, for example, has an 11.8 percent obesity rate, the lowest in the country. The hundreds of opportunities for physical activity in the mountains are a primary reason for that low number.

“Increased physical activity helps prevent heart disease and increases life expectancy,” said Dr. Lemis. A NIH study confirms that, finding that moderate to vigorous leisure-time physical activity can increase life expectancy by up to 4.5 years.

“There are so many opportunities for seniors here to remain active, physically and mentally,” said Gini Patterson, a physical therapist and executive director of Timberline Adult Day Services, which provides daytime care for adults with daily living challenges.

She gave several examples of places seniors can find these opportunities, such as Timberline, the Summit Senior Community Center and the “Over the Hill Gang” at Copper Mountain, a club for skiing seniors.

Frank Walters skiing at Copper Mountain Wednesday, Jan. 17.


Kauffman fits the mold of a very active mountain senior. He is the oldest member of the Summit Mountain Biking Club, which includes members in their 50s to 80s. In 2016, he celebrated his 80th birthday by getting 35 friends to join him on a two-week biking trip through the Austrian Alps. He goes on bike trips with friends and family, skis 30 to 40 times a year, and attends social gatherings with his many friends in the area.

“I’ve found that there’s actually too many things to do around here,” Kauffman said. “The only time I really sit around is on Sunday during football games. But I’ll record that if I have to, I won’t let it get in the way of my biking.”

Chuck Kauffman Monday, Jan. 29 in Summit Cove.

He also avoids the habits that shorten lifespan. He eats moderately, even if he enjoys sweets now and then.

“I’ve never been drunk, never had a hangover,” he said. “I smoked once, wound up burning a whole field down. Never did that again.”

Retired Summit County general surgeon Don Parsons, MD, has treated patients in Summit for decades. He said that mountain residents like Kauffman live longer because they follow the five rules he prescribes for a longer life.

“Don’t smoke, control your weight, eat a plant-based whole-food diet, exercise and have good social connections,” he said. “Summit County is absolutely ideal for all of those. We’re a community that really functions as a community. There are a lot of interconnections, a lot of volunteer opportunities. There are rock climbing clubs, ski clubs, bike clubs, all kinds of activities that bring people together.”


Why does Summit County, and other prosperous Colorado mountain counties, have the highest life expectancy in the country? Speaker Tony Buettner, with the Blue Zones Project, will provide science-based answers on Tuesday, Feb. 27 during the Summit Daily News’ “The Longevity Project” event at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. The event begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are available here.
To find the path to long life and health, the Blue Zones team study the world’s “Blue Zones,” communities whose elders live with vim and vigor to record-setting age. In Buettner’s talk, he will share the 9 common diet and lifestyle habits that keep them spry past age 100. Click here to read more.


In anticipation of The Longevity Project event, the Summit Daily will host a book discussion of “The Blues Zones” from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 21 at the Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center at 103 South Harris Street. Buy a copy of the book for $14 (cash or check) at Summit Daily offices located at 331 W. Main Street in Frisco. RSVP with Editor Ben Trollinger at btrollinger@summitdaily.com


But how much of the high life expectancy here has to do with the fact that Summit residents are a self-selected group well-adapted to mountain life?

Dr. Jules Rosen is the chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health and the former chief of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. He believes the mountains filter out anyone who can’t acclimate or afford the lifestyle, but living up here doesn’t make people healthier.

“It’s a self-selection of people who choose to live here,” he said. “If you don’t engage in that outdoors, active lifestyle, you probably won’t experience any benefits of living at altitude. There is no benefit just for living at 10,000 feet.”

Dr. Lemis agrees with that assessment.

“Most people who live here weren’t born here,” he said. “We went from a few thousand people in Summit in the 1960s to almost 30,000 people in the county now as residents.”

He points out that the type of people who move into the county are active and healthy to begin with.

“People with pre-existing conditions don’t move here, for the most part,” he said.

Conditions that are exacerbated by elevation-related illnesses include high altitude pulmonary edema, a condition that causes fluid buildup in the lungs, as well as central sleep apnea, which is caused by the pressure and oxygen changes associated with altitude.

Dr. Rosen and Dr. Lemis both believe the high life expectancy number to be somewhat artificial. They point to the fact that once seniors are unable to have their needs met in the mountains, they must move elsewhere.

Reasons can include wanting to be close to family who have already moved, needing special medical treatment or moving into a senior living facility that can better care for them. They tend not to come back, and die elsewhere. That skews the numbers, they argued.

“When people develop a medical condition that makes it harder to live at high altitude where there is 20 percent less oxygen at sea level, they might move,” said Dr. Lemis. “Another issue is if they get severely ill and need to be hospitalized beyond the level of care Summit can provide, they might move or get transferred to Denver and die there. So we don’t have as many people die here for that reason.”

The Summit County Coroner’s Office reported in 2016 that the county had 10 “out-of-jurisdiction” cases, which involve patients who started dying in Summit but were transferred out of the county and passed away elsewhere. The coroner reported 82 deaths in Summit in 2016, and 42 of those deaths were visitors from outside the county.

Dr. Mokdad said that the IMHE report did take migration into account, but it was not a big factor for life expectancy.


There seems to be another factor at play that’s apparent whenever you speak to one of our mountain seniors, an inner drive that pushes them to get up early every day and take in all the High Country has to offer. It’s a rugged stubbornness, a determination to not let time get ahead of them and to never say “die.” As Chuck Kauffman says, it’s a drive that keeps them from ever sitting still.

That factor may remain unquantifiable, but it could very well be one of the keys to a longer, happier, healthier life.

Part 2 in The Longevity Project series will appear in the the Feb. 9 edition of the Summit Daily News.

The key to longevity is lifestyle habits

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While there’s no foolproof way to ensure a long life, our choices along the way have a lot to do with it

Written By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Kaiser Permanente

Colorado mountain resort communities have some of the highest life expectancies in the nation, but it’s likely not the beautiful mountains that keep people living longer.

The lifestyles of those who live here have more to do with longevity than geography, according to research on what’s known as Blue Zones — regions in the world with the most centenarians. Their lifestyle choices are what they all have in common.

“Being able to consistently eat healthy and exercise regularly has been shown to maintain health as we age,” said Dr. Jeannine Benson, Internal Medicine Physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Edwards Medical Offices. “These lifestyle changes can prevent diabetes, heart diseases, strokes, cancer and many other health issues. Maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle can also keep joints and muscles healthy, which improves mobility as we age.”

The elders in Blue Zones have nine common lifestyle habits, including moving their bodies regularly, eating plenty of vegetables, winding down from stress and never overeating. They value family, feel a sense of purpose and belonging, and surround themselves with friends who also practice these habits. They also enjoy a glass of wine or two a day, according to the research.

These lifestyle choices can have major impacts on overall health, but Venable said there’s no surefire way to ensure longevity.

“Prevention is one of the key aspects of medical care,” said Dr. Carol Venable, Internal Medicine Physician with Kaiser Permanente’s Frisco Medical Offices. “Certainly not everything is preventable, but it is important to prevent the diseases we can. Vaccinations, healthy lifestyle choices, avoidance of substances that are deleterious to health, screening for those cancers for which we have good data for screening, testing for treatable diseases — like diabetes, hypertension, hepatitis C, HIV, etc. — and control of chronic medical conditions are all important.”

Preventative care for the body, mind

Younger, healthier people might not need to see a doctor annually, but annual checkups do become more important with age, Benson said.

“It is important to have regular checkups with your doctor and make sure that you are up to date on age and gender appropriate cancer screenings.  It is also important to find activities that can help keep your brain active.  This is just as important as keeping your body active,” Benson said. “Mental Health is also important as we age. With aging, issues like depression and anxiety can come up. These things are important to address with your doctor as well.”

This proactive approach to personal medical care goes hand in hand with healthy lifestyle habits. Benson said brain exercises include social interaction, reading books or doing puzzles, continued learning such as taking a class or watching an educational program, and volunteering or working in order to feel a sense of purpose.

“Having a purpose and something to contribute to the community is very enriching,” she said.

The amount of physical exercise that’s right for a person varies. Venable said exercise plans are not “one size fits all.” She said patients should create an exercise plan with their primary care physician.

For those who may hate a gym environment, Venable said to look to outdoor exercises that are popular in the mountains such as skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, biking, kayaking, paddleboarding, yoga and other activities. Even activities such as gardening can be a good way to move the body without going to a gym, Benson added.

“Find something that you like to do, but also involves exercise,” she said. “It is also helpful to have a friend or a group of friends join you. This can help keep you motivated and you can cheer each other on.”

As people age, spending time indoors tends to become more common, but research shows that could be detrimental to the various aspects of overall physical and mental health.

“I think it is important for folks to attempt to get out of the home, interact with people and be active in the community,” Benson said. “Isolation tends to lead to a sedentary life. We know that keeping the body active helps the mind stay healthy, as well.”

Summit County seniors like to ‘get after it’

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From outdoor recreation to quality time with friends, local seniors are meeting all the healthy habits attributed to longevity

Written By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by the Summit County Community and Senior Center and Summit County Senior Citizens

Whether they’re cross-country skiing, gardening, quilting, biking, playing cards or volunteering — seniors in Summit County participate in activities that enrich their lives and keep them on the road to longevity.

Thanks to the Summit County Community and Senior Center, which works in collaboration with Summit County Senior Citizens, anyone over the age of 50 in the county has access to all they need and more in order to stay active, get quality medical care, socialize and more.

“Throw out any preconceived notions you might have about a ‘senior center,’” said Don Gerstein, a member at the Senior Center. “This is a very active group of seniors. They get out and do stuff. Being active keeps you from feeling old.”

Research from Blue Zones, geographic areas whose residents have the longest life expectancies in the world as evidenced in the book, “The Blue Zones,” by Dan Buettner, shows physical activity is one of nine healthy habits practiced by the world’s longest living populations. The other habits include finding a sense of belonging, never overeating, eating a diet heavy in vegetables, putting family first, enjoying a glass of wine or two per day, having purpose in life, unwinding from stress and spending time with others who practice similar habits.

In Summit County, which has the highest life expectancy in the country according to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the other healthy habits on the Blue Zones list are normal ways of life for local seniors.

“The Summit County Community & Senior Center is a buzzing center of activity that harnesses our community’s strengths to support local seniors in living healthy, fulfilling lives,” said Lorie Williams, the Summit County Community and Senior Center’s manager. “We host a wide variety of programs and services that support physical, social and mental health.”

Finding purpose

The Summit County Seniors group is among the most active volunteer groups around, raising tens of thousands of dollars every year for local nonprofits that protect the environment, foster the arts and provide human services, Williams said. She calls the group a “charitable powerhouse.”

Having a meaningful sense of purpose in life may help us live longer, according to research published in the journal Psychological Science that found this sense of purpose predicted lower mortality risk in a study of more than 6,000 participants.

Longevity might be the long-term bonus of feeling a sense of purpose, but the more immediate benefits are obvious in the attitudes of local seniors.

“We never had time for volunteer work while working,” said Sandy Bainbridge, past president of Summit County Seniors. “Having a way to give back to the community through the Senior Center has been very purposeful for us.”

Bainbridge said the seniors wouldn’t feel nearly as young as they do without their involvement in the Senior Center.

“Certainly our social health is enhanced with the number of folks we have met at the Senior Center,” she said. “Our own neighborhood is very quiet with mostly absent homeowners. The Senior Center provides us with a neighborhood feeling.”

Getting after it

Many Summit County Seniors participants are able to enjoy a wide array of physical and recreational activities, but that shouldn’t preclude those who aren’t as physically able anymore from joining. The Senior Center serves elderly seniors and those with special needs, also.

For those who can do more, many find they can do even more than they realized once they’re part of the group.

“We wouldn’t be nearly as active  without the Senior Center recreational opportunities on our calendars,” Bainbridge said. “There are so many ways to help with our fitness through senior programs, and have fun with new and old friends.”

A quick glance through the center’s 16-page monthly newsletter reveals a veritable cornucopia of activities and programs. While skiing, hiking, bike rides and other outdoor recreation are part of the normal calendar, some less physically-demanding activities that keep in line with the Blue Zones’ healthy habits include a book club, group excursions such as the annual Rockies game, Monday night dinners, group games like bridge and mah jong, yoga and more.

Williams jokes that the local seniors “really get after it.”

And while fun and games is a huge part of what they do, the seniors also find support for other equally as important tasks related to aging.

“Beside the social aspects, the Senior Center offers help navigating the aging process including assistance with Medicare and Social Security issues and keeping up with technology,” Gerstein said. “It also provides aging services like Meals on Wheels and transportation to medical appointments.”

“Vacations are just what the doctor ordered”

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Research shows that vacations provide stress relief that’s critical to longevity

Written By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Breckenridge Grand Vacations

Work is consistently ranked as one of the highest causes of stress for Americans, yet workers often let too many of their hard-earned vacation days go unused each year.

The State of American Vacation, an annual survey of American workers’ vacation habits conducted by Project Time Off, shows Americans took an average of 16.8 days of vacation in 2017. It’s about a half-day more than the average in 2016, but still way down from the average of 20.3 days taken between 1976 to 2000.

If work is one of our main causes of stress in life — according to the annual Stress in America survey — why aren’t we taking enough time away from it to unwind?

Breckenridge is a place that offers countless ways to unwind. Whether you want outdoor recreation or total relaxation, it’s a worthy destination to put those vacation days to use.

“We’re huge proponents of why vacations play a major role in our health,” said AuBree Wagner, director of Creative Services for Breckenridge Grand Vacations. “Vacations are just what the doctor ordered.”

Nourishing the mind, body and soul

The American Psychological Association recommends taking time to replenish by “switching off” from work in order to avoid the negative effects of chronic stress and burnout.

“Don’t let your vacation days go to waste. When possible, take time off to relax and unwind, so you come back to work feeling reinvigorated and ready to perform at your best,” recommends the American Psychological Association. “When you’re not able to take time off, get a quick boost by turning off your smartphone and focusing your attention on non-work activities for a while.”

When people come to spend a week in Breckenridge, Wagner said they’re looking for an unforgettable experience. Breckenridge Grand Vacations has an Activities department that provides guests with the tools they need to go out and enjoy the mountains, or stay in and get pampered in a spa.

In-house activities include crafts such as jewelry and candle-making canvas painting, beer tasting and more. These activities are designed to bring out the creativity in those who have “checked out” from the stresses of real life.

And for those looking to increase their heart rates a bit more, Breckenridge Grand Vacations’ resorts can arrange hikes, snowmobiling, zip lining, horseback riding, dog sledding and more.

“Being active and staying active is super important in terms of living longer and being healthy, both physically and mentally,” said Deb Edwards, the BGV Gives program manager at Breckenridge Grand Vacations. “And with the arts, we also have so many opportunities for mental stimulation. The cultural opportunities we have here are just as important as getting out and being active in our environment.”

Living and breathing the lifestyle

Summit County’s life expectancy is the highest in the nation, according to a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study noted Summit County’s high education, high income, high access to medical care, level of physical activity and low obesity rate as reasons for residents’ longevity.

Breckenridge Grand Vacations staff practice what they preach. Wagner said the company has a wellness initiative that encourages a healthy work-life balance.

“It translates,” she said. “We want to share that with our guests when they come to visit. We want them to enjoy all the things that we moved here for.”

From utilizing indoor fitness centers or recreating outside, to relaxing by the pool, vacations in places like Breckenridge are about rejuvenation.

“Wellness on vacation is about taking a step back, resting and relaxing from the really hectic life you lead back where you live, and spending time with friends and family,” Edwards said. “When you surround yourself with friends and family, that’s also a big piece of living a long, well life.”

Wagner describes Breckenridge Grand Vacations as being in “the smile business,” which turns out to be yet another predictor of longevity. Research shows that smiling can lift our moods, lengthen our lives, fight off stress and more.