Age study raises issue of why isles rank No. 1
A Harvard School of Public Health study says Hawaii was No. 1 among states in average life expectancy, at 80 years, and local experts point to the high Asian-American population, low-key lifestyle and weather as reasons.
Some local researchers say one reason for Hawaii's high ranking is the long life expectancy of Japanese Americans.
Similarly, the study found Asian-American women living in Bergen County, N.J., lead the nation in longevity, typically reaching their 91st birthdays.
Scientists have long thought that the Asian longevity advantage would disappear once immigrant families adopted higher-fat Western diets.
Murray's study, the first to closely examine second-generation Asian Americans, found their advantage persists.
Nationally, Asian-American women can expect to live 13 years longer than low-income black women in the rural South.
Worst off were American Indian men in swaths of South Dakota, who die around age 58 -- three decades sooner.
Researchers say compared with most nations, life expectancy is high in Japan and becomes even higher among Japanese in Hawaii.
But they are unsure to what degree genetics, diet and physical and social environment play in Japanese living longer.
Dr. Lon White, principal researcher of the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study, said one possibility might be the makeup of those who immigrated from Japan to Hawaii, versus those who chose to remain home.
"The interesting thing is if something influenced those who came and those who stayed," White said.
"It could be they were more adventurous."
Conversely, White said, it might have nothing to do with immigration and more to do with the tropical environment.
Dr. Katsuhiko Yano, researcher emeritus at the Honolulu Heart Program, said although calorie and saturated fat intakes have increased in Japan, life expectancy has also increased.
"It's very hard to explain," he said.
What is easy to explain is the reason behind a growing demand for senior housing in Hawaii.
Roy Katsuda, executive director of Hale Mahaolu senior housing, said his nonprofit group is developing 112 units in South Maui in addition to providing housing units for more than 800 seniors, and there is still a waiting list.
Katsuda said he is not surprised that Hawaii is No. 1 in longevity.
He said his group provides housing for many people in their mid-80s and 90s.
Katsuda said four out of five of them are women, and many of them are Asian.
To some degree, he said, that might reflect the population on Maui 40 to 50 years ago, when Japanese Americans made up a larger proportion of the population.
John Tomoso, Maui County executive on aging, said he thinks the quality of life and the weather are factors in longevity.
"We don't have harsh weather," Tomoso said. "Nobody's yelling in your face."
Murray's county-by-county comparison of life expectancy shows geography plays a crucial role.
"Although we share in the U.S. a reasonably common culture ... there's still a lot of variation in how people live their lives," said Murray, who reported initial results of his government-funded study in the online science journal PLoS Medicine.
Murray said the longest-living whites were not the relatively wealthy in "Middle America."
They were edged out by low-income residents of the rural Northern Plains states, where men tend to reach age 76 and women, 82.
Low-income whites in Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley die four years sooner.
Among American Indians, those who do not reside on or near reservations in the West have a better chance of living longer, with life expectancies similar to whites'.
The study is intended to help federal officials better target efforts to right inequities, said Dr. Wayne Giles, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which helped fund Murray's work.
"It's not just telling people to be active or not to smoke," Giles said. "We need to create the environment which assists people in achieving a healthy lifestyle."
The study also highlights the complicated tapestry of local and cultural customs that might be more important than income in driving health disparities, said Richard Suzman, of the National Institute on Aging, which co-funded the research.
"It's not just low income," Suzman said. "It's what people eat, it's how they behave or simply what's available in supermarkets."
Murray's study allows federal officials to pinpoint geographic areas for further study, including a look at shared ancestry, dietary customs, local industry and what regions are more or less prone to physical activity.
Longevity linked to race, region
A Harvard School of Public Health study analyzed mortality data between 1982 and 2001 by county, race, gender and income and found some distinct groupings that it labeled the "eight Americas":
» Asian Americans, average per capita income of $21,566, have a life expectancy of 84.9 years.
» Northland low-income rural whites, $17,758, 79 years.
» Middle America (mostly white), $24,640, 77.9 years.
» Low-income whites in Appalachia, Mississippi Valley, $16,390, 75 years.
» Western American Indians, $10,029, 72.7 years.
» Black Middle America, $15,412, 72.9 years.
» Southern low-income rural blacks, $10,463, 71.2 years.
» High-risk urban blacks, $14,800, 71.1 years.
Source: Dr. Christopher Murray, Harvard School of Public Health
The Associated Press contributed to this report.