This month we announced that eight Southwest Florida communities have achieved Blue Zones Community® certification, making them the first places to earn the designation in Florida and the Southeast U.S. This is a significant milestone for Blue Zones Project by Sharecare, which has been working in partnership with NCH Healthcare System since 2015 to improve the well-being of residents in the area, which includes the cities of Naples, Immokalee, Ave Maria, Bonita Springs, Estero, Golden Gate, East Naples, and Marco Island.
Blue Zones Project by Sharecare also played a crucial role in enhancing individual health and bolstering overall resilience across these communities in the face of not only the COVID-19 crisis but also two major hurricanes (Irma in 2017 and Ian in 2022). Despite the loss and challenges many suffered during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the region – thanks to the dedicated efforts of the local Project staff, sponsors, volunteers, and committee members – has established a strong foundation of population health that has enabled residents to persevere.
Establishing a foundation for adaptability
Since the Project’s launch, nearly 275,000 individuals have participated in programs, activities, and best practices implemented by over 800 participating local organizations. More than 60 new community policies have also been implemented, improving the built environment infrastructure, food systems, and tobacco use across the region to support better health among residents.
Data from Sharecare’s Community Well-Being Index has shown promising trends, with the overall 2021 Index score aggregated for Southwest Florida’s eight certified communities rising to 72.2 out of 100, a gain of 3.6 points since 2015. Each point increase in well-being score leads to an approximate 2% reduction in emergency room (ER) visits and hospital utilization, and an approximate 1% reduction in total healthcare costs. Overall well-being in the area also measures higher than both the state and nation, outpacing each by 8.2 points and 7.8 points respectively.
We also saw a nearly 27% increase in residents who report they are thriving in daily life, rising from 62.2% to 78.9% of the population; tobacco use is at an all-time low of 3.6% per capita; and 20.1% more residents are exercising regularly. Additionally, $190.2 million in avoided medical and lost productivity costs were gained since the Project began and $15.3 million in add-on grant funding was generated for the communities.
In times of crisis, the Project brought together over 60 partners representing different aspects of the food system to create the Food Policy Council. In addition to securing over $1.2 million in grants, the Council introduced an online platform to connect those with excess food – like grocery stores, restaurants, and clubs – with nearby emergency food providers who serve those in need. Since launching this food security initiative in Southwest Florida in 2021, nearly 310,000 pounds of food have been ‘rescued’ to help residents.
Additionally, and as a founding partner of the Resilient Southwest Florida movement, Blue Zones Project responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing aid and resources to support overall well-being in the communities. Through these partnerships, the Project has improved coordination and distribution of resources, such as food, mental health support, well-being activities, and emergency supplies, and assisted in delivering tetanus shots.
Blue Zones Project and NCH Healthcare System will continue to engage people, places, and policy partners to optimize the region’s long-term health and well-being, as well as leverage the support of community influencers – from physicians to local realtors – to spread awareness about the benefits of living in a Blue Zones Project Community.
We also will place particular focus on supporting the region’s most vulnerable individuals and, with 83% of residents reporting medium to high stress levels daily, embark on a concerted effort to reduce stress among Southwest Floridians by granting over 500,000 people in the area with free access to Sharecare’s scientifically validated digital therapeutic, Unwinding Anxiety, in the Spring of 2023.
Bottom line, we are humbled by the grit, spirit, and dedication of the residents and leaders in these Southwest Florida communities, and look forward to this next phase of work in partnership with NCH Healthcare System.