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A Look At Longevity

A new study out of Harvard raises some interesting issues about longevity and the role of diet in life expectancy:

Leading the nation in longevity are Asian-American women who live in Bergen County, New Jersey, and typically reach their 91st birthdays…On the opposite extreme are American-Indian men in swaths of South Dakota, who die around 58.

The study finds that swings in life expectancy by geography, income and ethnicity are dramatic within the US:

The Asian-American women can expect to live 13 years longer than low-income black women in the rural South. That’s like comparing women in wealthy Japan to those in poverty-ridden Nicaragua.

Money doesn’t buy longevity:

The longest-living whites weren’t the relatively wealthy, which Murray calls “Middle America.” They’re edged out, by a year, by low-income residents of the rural Northern Plains states, where the men tend to reach age 76 and the women 82.

And it turns out that our efforts typically focusing on either childhood diseases or diseases of the elderly overlook a key fact:

Longevity disparities were most pronounced in young and middle-aged adults. A 15-year-old urban black man was 3.8 times as likely to die before the age of 60 as an Asian American, for example.

This study was a look at geographical clusters of people, but something more than propinquity may connect these people, genetics perhaps:

For example, scientists have long thought that the Asian longevity advantage would disappear once immigrant families adopted higher-fat Western diets. Murray’s study is the first to closely examine second-generation Asian Americans, and found their advantage persists.

The study doesn’t give many causes; more it gives an impetus to further research why life expectancy varies so much by geography.

What these dramatic disparities do, though, is raise the issue of where public health funds should be invested. It seems unlikely that 15-year-old urban blacks die before age 60 at 3.8 times the rate of Asian Americans because of their diet. Dangerous urban environments, participation in dangerous activities such as gangs and unsafe sexual activity all seem more likely causes.

So much of our healthy eating programs seem focused on anti-cancer programs designed to extend the senior years by a fraction. Maybe we can refocus a bit toward being a positive force in transforming these negative urban environments.

Although the problem may not be nutrition, per se, part of the solution may be a culture shift that can include a shift to caring for oneself and taking responsibility for oneself.

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