News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 27, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Long live ... us

In never-say-die America, life expectancy is longer than ever

Six members of the Class of ’74 sit around a restaurant table.

They sip red wine and munch on a trail-mix-style bowl filled with fish oil, flaxseed oil and DHEA gel tabs. A joke about a classmate’s spring break photo with her great-grandson’s frat brothers on Facebook sparks hysterical laughter. As the chuckles subside, they check their iPhone clocks, realize the abs-crunch marathon fundraiser for the Macrobiotic Diet Consortium starts in an hour, and get busy planning their 85th reunion.

A retro “Dancing with the Stars” theme wins unanimous approval. One guy tweets his mother-in-law about next week’s library tax protest, the class president picks up the tab, and they scatter out the door.

Sure, the ages of the folks in that futuristic dinner party would be around 103, but in never-say-die America, life expectancy is longer than ever, according to a report issued this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A baby born in 2009 will live an average of 78 years and two months. If that kid is a girl, she will likely linger on Earth for 80.6 years, compared to 75.7 for a boy. Back in 1930, a man’s life expectancy was 58 and a woman’s 62.

The CDC won’t say why Americans live longer until the second half of its life expectancy report is released later this year, but the agency has a pretty good guess. Improved medical treatment, vaccinations and anti-smoking campaigns have helped drop the death rate to a record low as deaths from strokes, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease and cancer decreased during the past 12 months.

Plus, our ancestors had no idea that red wine contained antioxidants and resveratol that protect blood vessels and reduce “bad” cholesterol. Or that DHEA supposedly repairs damage to cells in our bodies. Or that fish oil and flaxseed oil fight free radicals, which are cell-damaging molecules, not 1960s fugitives.

So, with almonds stashed in our shirt pockets instead of Marlboros, we’ve nearly tacked an extra decade onto our lives since 1970, when life expectancy in the U.S. was 70.8 years.

“It does go up every year, little by little,” CDC statistician Ken Kochanek said by telephone from Washington, D.C., last week.

Seemingly, this age-defying trend could extend and create bizarre cultural dynamics, not unlike the aforementioned class reunion committee meeting. In Britain, for example, government researchers estimate that by 2014 — just a little more than two years from now — the number of Brits ages 65 and older will surpass that of the under-16 population. Think of the implications — there are more people sitting around the UK who look like Keith Richards than fresh-faced kids. Actually, the Stones guitarist (now 67) would be considered a mere pup, if a BBC report is true. That story quoted a Science magazine analysis that concluded there is no natural limit to human life. The greeting card companies may be printing a new “Happy 200th” line someday.

Mel Brooks’ 2,000-year-old man comes to mind. When asked if he knew Joan of Arc, Mel’s character responded, “Know her? I went with her, dummy.”

Reality continues to apply, though. Humans are managing to live longer, but not indefinitely. Though 36,000 fewer Americans died in 2009 than the year before, a total of 2.4 million still passed on in ’09. The leading causes were, in order, heart disease, malignant neoplasms, chronic lower respiratory diseases, cerebrovascular diseases, accidents, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, flu and pneumonia and nephritis. “In general, you have the same problems that have existed for a long time,” said Kochanek.

Men show up in those statistics sooner than women, apparently because we do dumb stuff more often, such as smoking and exceeding the speed limit. “Men take more risks, and that affects life expectancy,” Kochanek said. Both genders eat less wisely, too, even if we’re popping those Omega-3 pills. Americans in the sixtysomething age range are, on average, 10 pounds heavier than folks of a similar vintage a decade earlier, according to FDA statistics cited by U.S. News & World Report.

The impact of poor choices on our lifetimes can be tabulated. For those dying to know how much time they’ve got, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. provides an online calculator. Just punch in your age, height, weight, then answer 11 other questions about your lifestyle, family history and habits and — voila! — your final number appears. If you want something handy enough to stick onto the front of the fridge, the U.S. Census Bureau offers a less detailed chart subtitled “Average Number of Years of Life Remaining.”

Of course, those are national figures. Averages. They vary by location. According to a nationwide study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, Vigo County’s mortality rate ranks 69th out of 92 counties in Indiana, which isn’t good. The mortality rate is a measure of premature death — the years of potential life lost prior to age 75.

Why do Vigo Countians die so young?

Well, in terms of health behaviors (smoking, binge drinking, car crashes, diet and exercise, STDs and teen birth rates), Vigo County rates an abysmal 80th out of 92 counties. (Apparently, very few of the wine-drinking, fish-oil-eating, fitness-crazed baby boomers described earlier call Vigo County home.) When calculating mortality rates, health behaviors account for nearly one-third of the influencing factors, along with clinical care, socioeconomics and physical environment, the Population Health Institute study said.

Given those real numbers, the secret of long life may not be such a secret after all. Author and psychologist Howard Friedman’s new book, “The Longevity Project,” explores the topic. In a Time magazine interview this month, he explained that “conscientiousness” was a primary enhancer of life expectancy.

“The most intriguing reason why conscientious people live longer is that having a conscientious personality leads you into healthier situations and relationships,” Friedman told Time. “In other words, conscientious people find their way to happier marriages, better friendships and healthier work situations. They help create healthy, long-life pathways for themselves. This is a new way of thinking about health.”

That should give Keith Richards something to consider every time the Stones play “Time Is On My Side.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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    March 12, 2010