In Our View: Living Longer

We’ve made strides over 20 years, but 30-plus nations are ahead of Americans

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Why do the women in Clark County live on average about four years longer than the men? Because they deserve to. Bah-rum! Pum!

And why do residents of Clark County live on average about two years longer than people in Multnomah County? Because weird is lethal. Boom!

Ah, yes, the punch lines fly as fast and furiously as the rim shots when folks start talking about life expectancy. Factor in the gender differences and the more subtle geographical distinctions, and the statistics just beg for whimsical analysis.

Beyond the amusement, though, there were plenty of lessons to digest from Paris Achen’s story in Thursday’s Columbian about life expectancy in Clark County. When compared with other counties and when placed in a global context, the data are revealing.

Adding interest to the study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation were trends detected over two decades. For example, it was encouraging to learn that Clark County men are living an average of almost five years longer than in 1987, i.e. 77.3 years in 2007 compared with 72.8 back then. Local women have improved from an average 79 years to 81.4 years over those 20 years. Both of those averages are slightly ahead of national figures. Combined, Clark County residents are coaxing a robust 80 years out of the life cycle. Good news, for sure, and a tribute to the advances of health sciences, and perhaps to the active lifestyle of Pacific Northwesterners.

But let’s not get overconfident here. Placed on a world scale, Americans don’t even rank among the top 30 countries, which are led by Iceland. Then again, who wants to live eight decades in Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital city? No. 2 Switzerland would be much better, right? The United States ranks 33rd (men) and 36th (women).

Back to the good news: Among U.S. counties, Clark County men rank 200th, in the top 7 percent, while local women rank 362nd, in the top 12 percent.

Of course, our rankings would be higher if we took better care of ourselves, especially in two categories that might not seem so easy to control but which offer immense potential benefits in life expectancy: eating habits and smoking. According to Clark County Health, 64 percent of us in Clark County are obese or overweight — although obviously no one in this conversation — and 17 percent of us are smokers.

Local health officials are trying to reduce those obesity and smoking percentages with numerous initiatives such as advocating healthy food choices in corner markets and schools and increasing the number of community gardens. Local public officials give parks and trails programs as much attention and money as the tough economic times allow. But none of these public programs can be effective if we don’t make the private sacrifices and do our part by improving our nutritional intake and exercising more.

Another factor that keeps Americans far down on the global life expectancy list is health insurance. We pay more per capita on health care than other countries, but look at the measly bang for our buck.

Desperate to finish this sermon on a positive note, we turn your attention to a neighboring county. Our men are living an average two years longer than the guys in Oregon’s Multnomah County, and Clark County women have an edge of 1.2 years. At last count, that’s the 487th reason why it’s better to live over here.