Let’s check out some fascinating information out of Washington State, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
They looked at life and death data of Washingtonians who live in highly walkable, mixed-age communities, finding that the probability of living to 100 is higher in urban areas and smaller towns if people were in walkable communities.
This adds to a growing body of evidence that social and environmental factors contribute significantly to longevity. Using statistical models seems to show genes may only be responsible for 25% of the longevity factor, while our environment kicks in as a 75% player.
Living in a place that supports healthy aging surrounded by people who take a dedicated interest in their own health — those who eat right and exercise, with walking being the best for seniors — can make a big difference. Living in a mixed-age community seems to be a major factor.
Researchers analyzed the deaths of nearly 145,000 Washingtonians who died at age 75 or older, looking at how old they were, their sex, race, education level and marital status. Then they looked at poverty level, access to public transportation, availability of primary care services, air pollution levels, whether they lived in a “food desert” and if there were park spaces in the vicinity.
The goal was to see how demographics played a role in the chances that people would make it to 100.
As you can imagine, higher socioeconomic status played a key role. We know that. If you are solidly middle class, you are more likely to be healthy than if you live in poverty. After you attain middle class, money doesn’t play a major role.
Women live longer than men. Not a biggie here. We know that, too. Just look at any senior citizen housing and you’ll see the ladies outnumber the gents by a lot.
But what they did discover, which I found fascinating, was that a mixed-age community — not just old folks but seniors mixing with those still in the workforce — had a positive impact on longevity. Communities that had oldsters and youngsters, grandmas and grandpas and kids running around, seemed to be beneficial for everybody.
In other words, those 55 and older communities that lack the age diversity of a neighborhood might not be as good for your health.
The study did outline that racial minorities, such as African Americans and Native Americans, do not have the same opportunities as Caucasians. And the research clearly showed this impacted disproportionately a person’s chances of living to 100.
My spin: If you’re older, if you’re wondering where to live next, if you’re selling that house and thinking of moving elsewhere, you might want a walkable community, with lots of parks but also with lots of people younger than you to keep you in shape. Where we live plays a key role in our health and longevity.
COVID caveat: I write about COVID-19 all the time, in this column and on my Facebook page. I came across something recently that concerned me about the theoretical long-term consequences.
If you’re not a young adult and your memory is intact, you know you once thought you were invincible. You threw caution to the wind, at least some of the time — which is exactly what many young adults seem to be doing when it comes to social distancing with COVID.
They may be thinking, well, if I get it, no biggie. I’ll survive just fine. And perhaps they will — survive the initial COVID-19 event, that is. But what they’re not considering is that some viruses we survive still have long-term consequences.
Let’s take HPV, the human papillomavirus. You can get it through sex in you teens or 20s. Most get over it, but some don’t. Some women get cervical cancer from it — five, 10, 20 or 30 years later. And some men develop penile cancer or head and neck cancer (from oral-genital sex) in their 50s and 60s, years after getting HPV initially.
The same may be true for the novel coronavirus. In other words, getting over COVID-19 may not mean getting over COVID-19. We don’t yet know if there are long-term consequences from this nasty viral terrorist.
My spin: Social distancing counts. Wash your hands. Wear a mask because it protects others, shows good citizenship, and it may protect you. Stay well.
This column provides general health information. Always consult your personal health care provider about concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort is implied or offered by Dr. Paster to people submitting questions. Any opinions expressed by Dr. Paster in his columns are personal and are not meant to represent or reflect the views of SSM Health.
Dr. Zorba Paster is the co-host of “Zorba Paster On Your Health,” which airs at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturdays on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio. He practices family medicine in Oregon, Wis. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Wisconsin State Journal, Attn: Health Column, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI 53708.