Does mountain living last longer?
September 27, 2006
EAGLE COUNTY ” Is it somehow healthier to live in Eagle County? That’s what a new study from Harvard University seems to say.
Eagle and six other counties located along the Continental Divide in Colorado lead the nation in longest average life expectancy ” 81.3 years. Four of these seven counties ” Clear Creek, Grand, Eagle, and Summit ” have ski areas, with Loveland in Clear Creek and Winter Park and SolVista in Grand.
So, skiing would seem to be the explanation, right? Or at least the wealth that is often found in ski resort areas. After all, can’t wealthier people afford better medical care?
Maybe so, but healthy living and regular check-ups alone don’t explain the high rankings.
Consider the three other counties in Colorado that also lead the nation in longevity: Gilpin, which is where the smoke-filled casinos of Blackhawk and Central City are located; Jackson, better known as North Park, a ranching area that is among Colorado’s poorer places; and Park, partially the setting for the famous television series “South Park” and also location of Breckenridge blue-collar suburbs of Fairplay and Alma.
The only thing these places have in common, other than people long in the tooth, is thin air. The lowest point in any of them is in Eagle County, at the edge of Glenwood Canyon, where the elevation is about 6,000. Some principal towns among them range up to 9,000 and 10,000 feet.
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Also having the same longevity are three counties ” two in Iowa, and one in Maryland ” located at decidedly low elevations, little above sea level.
Rounding out the nation’s top-40 places for life expectancies are:
– Five more counties from mountainous areas of southwest Colorado: San Miguel, Ouray, Mineral, Hinsdale, Gunnison, and Archuleta);
– Five from Utah ” Morgan, Summit, Washington, Cache, Cache and Rich ” all but one in mountainous areas.
– Four in Idaho ” Blaine, Boise, Camas and Custer ” and again, all in mountainous areas. However, the mountainous areas of Idaho are sometimes lower than Denver.
So, if it’s not skiing and money, what could it be? Testimony to the value of pretty scenery? Is sucking extra hard for a lung full of air the fountain of youth?
The short answer is that the Harvard researchers don’t know why, after analyzing national data from 1980 to 1999, mountain counties lead the nation in longevity. That was but a footnote to the broader study of longevity trends across the nation.
In that wider study, the researchers found that wealth is not necessarily a predictor of who lives longest. The longest-lived group of people are Asian-American females in New Jersey.
On the flip side, the nation’s shortest longevity is among Native American men in South Dakota and black men in urban areas, and more broadly rural counties in the South.
Risk factors may explain the successes and failures. Dr. Christopher Murray, the lead researcher, told reporters that shorter life expectancies are linked to tobacco use, alcohol, blood pressure, obesity, diet and physical inactivity.
By reverse logic, the mountain counties may have more physically active people who don’t smoke and who do eat well, he said.
And indeed, Colorado ” which as a state ranked in the second tier of states, behind Hawaii, for life expectancy ” has the nation’s lowest obesity rate, a relatively low smoking rate, and a relatively active lifestyle, observed Dr. Ned Calonge, Colorado’s chief medical officer.
Still, none of this satisfactorily explains why counties in the Rocky Mountains top the nation in longevity. There are two theories. One can be called the theory of self-selection.
When people get sick, particularly with chronic lung and air diseases, they tend to leave the High Country for lower elevations, such as Grand Junction and Denver, Tucson and Phoenix, where medical facilities are generally better and where the air has more oxygen. This is mostly anecdotal, although one study conducted in the early 1980s documented the migrations in Colorado.
On the flip side, migrants who are healthier may be drawn to mountain counties. The ski towns have increasingly become places of gray hair. The above-60 age cohort, while still relatively small, was the fastest growing population segment in the 1990s.
One of the researchers, Majid Ezzati, said that the research team had studied broadly demographic migrations, but not from individual counties. As such, those migrations in and out of mountain counties could explain their high rankings.
A second theory is advanced by Dr. Benjamin Honigman, director of the Colorado Center for Study of Altitude Medicine and Physiology. That theory holds that people who have lived here at higher elevations for a long time develop some kind of protective effect that yields stronger lungs and hearts.
That has been proven in populations who have lived hundreds or thousands of years in high elevations. Tibetians, for example, have lived at locations of 12,000 feet and even higher.
But that theory lacks supporting evidence, says Honigman.
“There isn’t much known about longevity and altitude,” he says.
Honigman hopes to find money that will pay for study of this connection between thin air and health. For example, Colorado also has a lower rate of heart attacks and stroke than most places, but it’s not known why. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg question: Do people in Colorado have behaviors that make them healthier, or is it because living in Colorado makes them healthier.
The question has a consequence, notes Honigman, given that many parts of Colorado are billing themselves as ideal places for retirement.
Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado