A study by Harvard University and the National Institute on Aging released last week revealed that Asian-American women are the longest-lived ethnic group in America. Why? A wise Diet, regular Exercise, traditional Lifestyle and Family ties are key factors. Where you live also plays a role. In affluent Bergen County, New Jersey life expectancy for Asian women is age 91. Many came to this county as grandmothers. Compare that to Hawaii where life expectancy is 80 but only 58 for American Indians in South Dakota. Imagine what people are doing right now in Hawaii–eating fresh fruits and vegetables, basking in sunshine, gardening and senior surfing. (Give me a grant to study that!) Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging, believes poor life expectancy results from factors besides low income: “It’s what people eat, it’s how they behave, or simply what’s available in supermarkets” that counts.
Longevity: Lifestyle and Income:
The study, which analyzed mortality data between 1982 and 2001 by county, race, gender and income, highlights that local and cultural customs may be more important than income: There are 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.
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. Most important are geographically defined factors – such as shared ancestry, dietary customs, local industry, what regions are more or less prone to physical activity – that in turn influence health risks.
Bergen County Asian Women
Asian women live longer than any other ethnic subgroup of people in the nation, according to federal statistics. Their average lifespan is 91.1 years in Bergen County compared with 77.5 for the general population and 86.7 for Asian women nationally.
In interviews at a nursing home in Paramus, a Japanese market in Edgewater and a center for the aged in Fort Lee, elderly women from Korea, China and Hong Kong attributed their longevity to a healthy diet, belief in God, and their close-knit communities in the well-off suburbs that hug the Hudson River and the New York State border. At my local Chelsea gym in New York, it’s the older Chinese and Japanese women who show up regularly to swim. There are more factors that keep Asian people healthy.
I looked into the Bergen County Health Report for 2000 to get more details. There 1 in 10 seniors report that they often feel alone and 70% say they never feel alone. They are independent. Many own their homes and 75% feel it is important to remain active in their Asian community. In 1998 the population of Bergen County was 858, 529 of which 31.4% were over age 75.
Saying the Asian–high fiber, low fat, low protein–diet is healthy and life enhancing is not enough. We already know that. Here is what some typical seniors who were interviewed said:
“I don’t eat beef or meat, and I usually take my main dish as vegetables,” said Ms. Park, who energetically offered apples and oranges as she recounted a life so full of farming, raising four children and doing household chores that it allowed little time for sickness.
Ms. Kim’s only complaint — the only medical complaint, anyhow — is a little high blood pressure, and she attributes her impressive age to the way she eats a little at a time, “mainly fresh salads and vegetables.”
High dietary intake of fat increases the rise of coronary heart disease and certain cancers. Increasing fresh fruits and vegetables decreases their risk. Of the people interviewed in age group 65 – 75, 66% eliminated dietary fat foods and of 75 and over age group, 53% omitted from their daily diet high fat foods, including butter, whole fat dairy, meats, etc. Of them 66% had fruit at least once daily, 60% had vegetables at least once daily and 37% ate low fat foods. Only 17% had whole fat dairy.
One person in ten – 12% had the “healthiest” behavior.They didn’t smoke, take street drugs. They exercised regularly, limited fat intake, and got plenty of sleep. The people with healthiest habits in Bergen County were aged 45 – 74 – Baby Boomers and their young parents. In Bergen County very few people age 65 and over used community mental health programs, about 1.54% in 1996.
Weight and Habits
Bergen County adults not only eat better they are slimmer than average Americans: 55% are within 15 pounds of their ideal body weight. 47% of people aged 65 – 74 have their ideal weight and 53% of people age 75 and over are within 15 pounds of the their ideal weight.
Among older, more conservative adults age 65- 74, 32% never drink alcohol and 95% never take so called recreational drugs. (I find the term offensive: Let’s call street drugs street drugs.)
Asian Restaurants and Supermarkets
It is not difficult to find Asian foods anywhere in America. You can shop online for most Asian cooking ingredients and some ready-made foods. Bergen County, as well as many communities have Asian supermarkets. In New York you can find Japanese and Korean stores in midtown and many Chinese food and herb shops in three distinct Chinatowns: lower Manhattan, Flushing, and Brooklyn. Visit Chinatowns in Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston and California
Among favorite healthy Asian foods are :
• Green tea – high in antioxidants with digestive, anticancer and anticholesterol properties.
• Bitter Melon and Cherry Grain Balsam Pear Tea (bitter melon tea) reduces fat, cholesterol and lowers blood sugar in diabetes
Asian herbs are used in a variety of ways to enhance vitality, immunity and mood. Among favorites are:
• Chinese, American, Siberian, tienchi, and neutral (dang shen) ginsengs used to help the body to adapt to stress
• Medicinal fungi such as shiitake mushrooms have anticancer properties
Lack of exercise is a risk factor for an impressively long list of diseases from heart disease and cancer to depression. The majority of Bergen County adults surveyed exercise 30 minutes one or more times a week. In fact 39% exercise 2 – 5 times weekly and 24% of people over 75 exercise daily. That’s very good considering that only about 3 – 4 % of the American public lives a totally healthy lifestyle–good diet, exercise, non-smoking and other beneficial habits.
The Asian Big Picture
Are you beginning to get an idea of the average Asian-American women in Bergen County and the rest of the county? She is strong, independent, slim, regular in her habits, and active in the community. She is devoted to her family and generally optimistic. Many Asian women have run their own businesses and managed the family income. One Japanese woman friend of mine told me that typically a Japanese wife manages the family income. In fact, often one of the ways a Japanese man may propose marriage is to ask if she would like to manage his money. No small advantage compared to our system of two adults working their heads off to put kids through private school and pay for impossible doctor bills.
Why do they live longer? “I think it’s because their minds are comfortable,” said Hwang Song Gi, 78, “because every day they have a schedule, with lunch at the same time, and dinner, and exercise.” She is a regular at a Bergen County Long Life center and goes to church three times a week. Another woman in the study said, “I don’t think about my age.” She enjoys golfing with her husband and traveling to her Asian homeland. “I don’t feel old. I try to feel young all the time,” she smiled.
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