Longevity Project: Local physicians feel health conscious culture sets Aspen area apart
IF YOU GO ...
What: Longevity Project: Elevate Your Life featuring National Geographic explorer Mike Lebecki
Panelists: Aspen Olympian Alex Ferreira, local adventurer Christy Mahon, Aspen Strong founder Christina King, Aspen Valley Hospital orthopedist Dr. Tomas Pevny and Aspen Mountain Rescue volunteer Greg Shaffran. Moderator will be Penn Newhard, founder of Backbone Media.
When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Mountain Chalet, 333 E. Durant Ave.
Tickets: Visit aspen.longevityproject.net
On a recent evening in a Basalt backyard, three generations of family gathered for dinner.
The mother and daughter played volleyball for a few minutes while veggie burgers cooked on the grill, and the father and his parents sat on the porch discussing the news of the day as a black cat slinked around their feet.
Meet the Locke family. Over the past 20 years, the three generations have made their home in the Roaring Fork Valley, first when Kelly and Karen came to work as family physicians and to raise their four children; then when Marilyn and John retired and moved to the Basalt area full-time about 15 years later.
Reflecting on their two decades of experience as local physicians and parents, Kelly and Karen Locke see the Aspen area as an active, health conscious community, a characteristic they feel benefits all aspects of life in the valley for all ages.
“From a young age, people feel they need to be eating healthy, exercising regularly and it’s not just coming from their parents,” Karen said. “Health promotion extends into pretty much every aspect of life here.”
According to the most recent Regional Community Health Assessment — conducted to help guide public health initiatives in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties from 2018-2022 — people with higher incomes or personal wealth, more years of education, and who live in healthy and safe environments also have longer life expectancies and better overall health outcomes, as previously reported.
For Kelly and Karen, the general heightened investment in individual health across the valley they’ve observed helps contribute to locals’ longevity, too.
“I think it’s more of a nationwide trend but I also think our valley is a bit unique because people are really dialed into what their health problems are,” Kelly said. “People in the valley seem to be go-getters who are used to digging in and figuring out how to solve things and so they often come in (to the clinic) with requests like ‘Well, can I do it this way or can I do it that way?’ ”
Karen and Kelly have job-shared as family physicians in both public and private practices since they moved to the Roaring Fork Valley from Wisconsin in 1999.
The couple currently works in the Aspen Valley Primary Care clinic in Basalt and sees a little bit of everything on a day-to-day basis.
“Family medicine allows us to apply all of the different aspects of medicine out there,” Kelly said. “It’s a variety.”
That variety means the Lockes can go from seeing children to grandparents and from helping with mental health challenges to conducting skin biopsies, and gives them the opportunity to treat “the whole patient.”
The Aspen Times, in conjunction with our sister papers the Steamboat Pilot & Today and Summit Daily, is publishing a four-part series on living and thriving in the mountains. The weekly “Longevity Project: Elevate Your Life” series in September will culminate Oct. 1 with a speaker and panel discussion in Aspen. Elevate Your Life series: Part 1: A conversation with Mike Libecki, National Geographic explorer Part 2: How top athlete live, train at altitude Part 3: Examining mental wellness at altitude Part 4: General effects of life at 8,000-plus feet
When asked if they’ve noticed any health trends, positive or negative, related to living in high altitude communities such as Basalt and Aspen, the Lockes said they haven’t really seen any major detriments or advantages to living over 8,000 feet.
Kelly and Karen said they have seen more sleep apnea than other physicians at lower elevations, and some breathing conditions among both locals and tourists related to high altitude, but not a lot.
Kelly went on to say that he and Karen may not see as many patients with breathing complications related to high altitude because the patients “self-select” out, moving to lower elevation.
“We don’t have pollution or other things up here where people are chronically getting asthma flairs or other baseline lung issues,” Kelly said. “I mean we see lung problems but we don’t see a ton.”
However, two problems not necessarily related to living at high altitude Kelly and Karen have seen include chronic substance abuse and cost barriers to health care.
According to the most recent regional health assessment, substance abuse was determined one of the top health concerns across the region. The assessment also shows cost of health care and insurance as a reason some people in the valley do not seek the health care they may need.
“We have conversations with the patients about OK, does your insurance pay for this and say it may be cheaper to do it this way,” Karen said. “We’ll steer people to the least expensive route when possible.”
Overall, the Lockes said they feel the active lifestyle and health conscious culture has contributed to making the Roaring Fork Valley a predominately healthy place to live and to raise their four children.
“Knowing that once the kids left the door that some of the things you tried to instill in them would also be instilled by the teachers of the school or by other people in the community because we all have similar values made us feel reassured,” Kelly said.
For two of the Locke kids, these key values ingrained in them by their parents and valley locals include staying active and having an appreciation for the natural world.
“I think a lot of the individuals graduating from Aspen High School have a better appreciation for the outdoors and for spending as much time outside as they can, which I think has a significant positive impact on their health,” said Liam Locke, a junior studying neuroscience and biochemistry at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
Both Liam and his younger sister, Kira, noted specifically the Aspen School District’s outdoor education program as contributing to their desire to recreate outdoors and the Aspen area culture inspiring them to lead active lives.
“This environment is really healthy for me, I like that it’s a rural area where everyone knows each other and there’s so much to do,” Kira, an eighth-grader at Aspen Middle School said. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
But this more active lifestyle hasn’t just impacted Kira, her siblings and her parents. It’s also impacted her grandparents.
About four years ago, Marilyn and John started living full time in Basalt. The retired couple said they’ve noticed the healthy, active culture of the Roaring Fork Valley and have quickly become a part of it.
“We’ve made a lot of progress with our health I think since we’ve been out here. We can hike longer and we can do hills, whereas before we only did the flat areas,” Marilyn said, referring to their previous home in Texas.
“Because of the emphasis on health out here I think I do get out and hike more than I would have back home,” John added. “I probably would be more sedentary if it weren’t for the culture.”
Outside of exercise, John and Marilyn also feel there are lots of social opportunities for them as a retired couple, and for their grandchildren as younger adults in the valley. Neither they nor Kelly and Karen said they really feel the youngest Lockes are missing out on much growing up in Basalt and Aspen, except for the experiences that come with traveling to other places, nationally or internationally.
But even then, John and Marilyn, who have made multiple trips around the world in recent years, said they can’t imagine calling anywhere else home.
“We travel quite a bit now that we’re retired and we always say at the end of our trip, let’s go home,” Marilyn said, laughing. “We can’t think of a better place, the Roaring Fork Valley is where we want to live.”
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Pitkin County and Basalt have been subsidizing the public drop-off recycling center in Basalt since 2015. Pitkin County informed Basalt it won’t contribute any longer. Basalt says it can’t provide the entire subsidy required by private company Waste Management. The future of the popular facility is in doubt.