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COLUMN: How do we control rising health care costs?

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Live a long, healthy, active life-then die real quick.

That, in simple terms, is a partial solution to the health care funding crisis.

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That's how life unfolds in four "Blue Zones" scattered around the globe. These are "clusters of health" that researchers have studied extensively because of the unusually high average life span.

The four study areas:

Sardinia: Off the coast of Italy, where the population drinks red, Sardinian wine frequently and walks six miles a day.

Okinawa: Japanese on this island live, on average, seven years longer than Americans. It also has the distinction of a population with the longest disability-free lifespan in the world.

Loma Linda, California: In a Seventh Day Adventist community, where the average lifespan of women is 89-compared to 80 nationwide-a doctor there still performs about 20 open-heart surgeries a month-and he is 97 years old.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: Here, the population has the lowest rate of middle-age mortality in the world.

Another "Blue Zone" is being studied, off the coast of Turkey, where one in three people reach age 90-with virtually no dementia. Consider that, in the U.S., we spend $1.5 billion in care and medication for those suffering dementia.

Author Dan Buettner spoke at the recent Minnesota State Newspaper Association Convention about his book "Blue Zones: Lessons for living longer from the people who've lived the longest."

The most dangerous years of an American's life are the year of birth-and the years after retirement. It follows suit that those are also the most expensive years, from a health care standpoint.

One of the aspects common to all of these five zones is not only a long life, but also a long life with a relatively quick death. The morbidity rate (the last stage of aging, in nursing homes, on life support, and other high-care situations) in the U.S. is three years. In these "Blue Zones," it is less than a year.

So, the financial impact is obvious: A longer life relatively free of serious, costly health problems-and a quick death, associated by lower long-term elderly care costs.

In Okinawa, there is really no word for "retirement" in their vocabulary. People stay active; they eat a vegetable-based diet. And, Okinawans tend to die quickly-in their sleep. No long, drawn out, depressing stays in nursing homes.

In Sardinia, there are no nursing homes. Old folks basically just work until they die.

We've all heard it before, but the "Blue Zones" offer proof: Meat is not all that healthy.

It isn't necessary to become vegetarians, but in the "Blue Zones," meat is "more like a condiment, on the side-not the main course," said author Buettner.

Here are some other traits common to people in these "Blue Zones:"

--All of them tend to have gardens, where they not only produce healthy food, but it gets them outside and reduces stress.

--The "Blue Zones" tend to be faith-based; and worship regularly.

--Those with long life spans tend to eat lighter fare, they eat less, and they also eat slow. Interestingly, researchers found that saying grace before a meal serves as a means to "slow down" the dining process, which is healthier.

--Almost none of the people in "Blue Zones" belonged to gyms and fitness centers. They don't run marathons. But-they walk. They walk to church, they walk to the fields, they walk into town.

Walking is one of the surest ways to sustain cognitive health and prevent dementia, said author Buettner.

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