The Longevity Project 2018: How to live a longer, happier, healthier life at altitude

Intro to Blue Zones

The majority of research suggests genetics determines 20 to 30 percent of potential lifespan, leaving 70 to 80 percent to lifestyle.

Through a revolutionary project, explorer, journalist and best-selling author Dan Buettner worked with National Geographic to identify five communities across the globe where people are living the longest: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California. These areas were labeled as “Blue Zones.”

Joined by a team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers and epidemiologists, Buettner’s findings resulted in nine evidence-based lifestyle habits shared by the five Blue Zones.

Now they are working to spread those longevity discoveries in the United States.

9 healthy habits

  • Move naturally: The world’s longest-living people don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
  • Purpose: Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
  • Down shift: Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease.
  • 80 percent rule: Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full. Eat your smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening, and then don’t eat for the rest of the day.
  • Plant slant: Beans are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets.
  • Wine at 5: Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. Drink 1 to 2 glasses per day with friends and/or with food.
  • Belong: Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4 to 14 years of life expectancy.
  • Loved ones first: Successful centenarians put their families first.
  • Right tribe: The social networks of long-living people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.

Liz Copan /

Pushing the limit: Understanding the body’s performance at high elevation

A visitor flies into Denver from sea level, rents a car and drives up to Summit County. They decide not to waste any time, and they go for a hike as soon as they get here. Not too long into the hike, they start feeling a little lightheaded, and a headache starts gnawing at their temples. Farther along, their breaths get shorter. Before they’re halfway up, everything in their body is telling them to stop. They’re nauseated, dizzy and their muscles are aching.

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Liz Copan /

Living at altitude: Exploring the effects on mountain town residents

Life at nearly two miles high has its quirks. The air is thinner, meaning it can be harder to breathe. Dehydration sets in a lot quicker. Ultraviolet radiation is harsher, because there’s less atmosphere protection between the sun and our skin.

Yet more than 140 million people worldwide live above 9,000 feet with another 40 million a year visiting places at high elevation.

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Photo by Josh Helling

Building community: Identifying solutions to the mental health problem

The suicide rate in Summit and other mountain communities is consistently higher the national average. Of the 10 states with the highest suicide rates, eight were in the Rocky Mountains region: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

A variety of sociological factors — such as the rural and isolated nature of mountain communities, financial stress, a shortage of mental health providers and higher rates of substance and alcohol use — have been blamed as possible reasons for high suicide rates in the mountains.

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Liz Copan /

Road map for success: What’s next for high altitude research?

Summit County is about to become a living laboratory for high elevation medical research, but the data might come too late for the county’s growing senior population, many of whom have been forced to leave the place they love because of a lack of care options.

Summit County does not have a single assisted living, skilled nursing or memory care facility where seniors can get the specialized care they require when they advance in age.

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

The seniors of Summit County have among the highest life expectancy in the nation.

How do they live such happy, healthy lives? The answer is as clear as the air, they say: It’s just about enjoying life.

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.

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

In 2010, there were 53,364 people 100 or older living in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 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.

The U.S. suffers from a relatively high middle age morbidity rate, which is one reason it can’t compete with life expectancy in places like Sardinia or Okinawa.

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

Despite ranking in the top 10 among all Colorado counties in health outcomes, Summit tied for having the highest rate of excessive drinking in the state. Mountain counties also scored poorly because of a severe housing shortage.

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. To pay for a roof overhead, one might need two or three jobs. To cope with the stress, they might turn to heavy drinking or other self-destructive vices.

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

In Summit County, the senior population went from 7.7% in 2010 to 11.9% in 2016.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, the population of Americans 65 and older will reach 83.7 million, roughly double the senior population in 2012.

An older population also means more medical spending. Those 65 and older make up 14 percent of the total population but account for 34 percent of all health care spending. The cost of health care more than doubles between the ages of 70 and 90.

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