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Queens Chronicle

New Yorkers are living longer, study finds

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Posted: Thursday, March 4, 2010 12:00 am

There is a saying: “Age is a matter of mind. If you don’t mind it doesn’t matter.” In New York City, it seems truer today than ever before.

One who shares that attitude is Charles Braun of Kew Gardens, who has lived on this planet over an entire century. On Feb. 13 he celebrated his 101st birthday with his near and dear ones, in his Park Lane South apartment on Metropolitan Avenue. His biggest fans were there: his daughter, Judy Zegas, and two grandsons, who flew in from different parts of the country for the special event.

Braun was born in exotic Alexandria, Egypt, came to New York around 1943, moved to Queens in 1945 and has lived in Kew Gardens ever since. Asked the secret of his longevity, he said “There’s no secret … I don’t do anything special.”

But he did work until his late 80s and believes his active career contributed greatly to his sharp mind and long life. His daily menu is pretty ordinary: “I like eating different soups and sometimes, meat and chicken — and I take Vitamin B12, and special vitamin drops for my eyes.”

Braun is especially venerable, but it turns out that Queens residents may live longer than New Yorkers in other boroughs: an average of 79 years, according to a recent study. When it comes to the overall health of the Big Apple, Queens residents also scored highest. And it also helps to be female, as women live longer than men.

The “average life expectancy” of a city is a statistically curious number. It’s not really a prediction about how long you’re going to live — it’s an average of how long everyone here lives — a good barometer of the overall health of our city.

Did you know that as people age, their life expectancy actually increases? Each year you live means that you have survived all sorts of potential causes of death. If you were born in 1942, your life expectancy at birth was about 68 years. But the good news is that you didn’t die of infectious diseases, car accidents, or anything else. The average 65-year-old today can expect to live another 18.4 years. So your life expectancy now is not the same as it was at your birth — It is 5.9 years longer than the current life expectancy figure (which is for people born in 2007), or about 83.4 years.

The news just keeps getting better-if you make it to 75 your life expectancy increases to 86.8. You gain another 3.4 years.

In 2030 every NYC baby-boomer will be at least 65 years old! Mayor Bloomberg’s NYCPlan 2030 projects a 44 percent growth in the 65+ population by that year. This fact plus recent declines in fertility and improvements in life expectancy all contribute to a general aging of the population. According the U.S. Census Bureau, the 85+ population is the fastest growing segment in NYC. 2008 population estimates for both sexes in NYC total 161,223 for age 85+. And over 50 percent of the 65+ age group is composed of minority elderly.

In releasing the study, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and city Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley announced that life expectancy for all New Yorkers born in 2007 had increased to an average of 79.4 years to an all-time high: 82 years for women, 76.3 for men, exceeding national averages. Life expectancy has shot up by a year and 7 months since 2001, exceeding national gains. This announcement was made as the Health Department published new findings in its Annual Summary of Vital Statistics, providing detailed statistics on births and deaths in 2008; the overall death rate remained at an historic low, and deaths from many preventable causes declined.

“Helping people live longer, better lives is the core responsibility of government, which is why nearly every initiative we take on is focused on that goal,” Bloomberg said. “The steady, continued increase in life expectancy demonstrates the remarkable progress we have made and the need to continue to press forward with bold health policies. The report shows too many New Yorkers still die from preventable causes.”

Yes, the citywide death rate dropped in 2008 to a record low of 6.5 deaths per 1,000 people. But the main killers for New Yorkers in 2008 were heart disease, which caused 21,192 deaths, and cancer (13,047 deaths). Diabetes killed 1,643, and chronic lower respiratory diseases ended 1,605 lives. Following these were influenza and pneumonia, which together claimed 2,300 lives - luckily, vaccinations can help prevent both.

Sadly, for seniors, cancer was the No. 1 killer. Although deaths from cancer overall went down in 2008, the deadliest cancers for New Yorkers younger than age 65 were: lung (894 deaths), breast (493 deaths), and colorectal (450 deaths) - the most preventable cancer; colonoscopy screening can help prevent deaths by identifying the condition at its earliest, most treatable stages. Stubborn diabetes continues to be a health issue due to too many people being couch potatoes and Americans’ lack of portion control, as well as bad lifestyle habits starting in childhood.

On the bright side, one of the major contributors to the city’s overall rosy health news is a steady drop in smoking-related deaths, which have gone down 11 percent since 2003, when Bloomberg’s ban on smoking indoors in public places took effect, as well as other current factors like the decline in motor vehicle crashes and homicide.

“Increasingly, New York City is a healthy place in which to live,” Farley said, noting that the smoking rate among adults in 2008 was 15.8 percent, down from 21 percent, where the smoking rate had remained for a decade until 2002. And in surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, 27 percent of Bronx residents reported that they were in only poor or fair health, compared with 21 percent in Queens.

In Queens, only 15 percent of adults said they smoke tobacco. The Bronx had more smokers, with 20 percent of adults lighting up, the study found. They weren’t surprised by the findings: “It should come as a shock to no one that people in The Bronx are so unhealthy,” said home nursing aide Patricia Jimenez, 34. “Not only do you have a lot of poverty and pollution, you’ve got an entire generation raised on fast food and deli sandwiches.”

Ralph Cruz, 66, a retired plumber, said early death rates are common in the Bronx. “Most people I know don’t even make it close to a normal age. A lot of people I know died before they were even 50 or 60 years old,” he said. “They’re not doing enough to educate people in The Bronx about their health, and it makes me angry,” Cruz said.

Queens residents were surprised to hear that they’re the city’s healthiest. “Queens? That’s crazy,” said Forest Hills resident Helene Tooney, a retired medical-office manager. “Considering that two hospitals closed down, it’s not the health care,” she said. “We probably just have less pollution here.”

“New Yorkers can combat the leading causes of premature death by quitting smoking, being more active, maintaining heart-healthy diets, controlling high blood pressure and cholesterol, using condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, and living free of alcohol and drug dependence,” said Farley. “We will continue to work with communities and health care providers to make New York the healthiest city we can.”

Our New York neighborhoods are part of a congressional district that tops the U.S. in the well-being of its residents, according to a new report — a joint project by several non-profit groups — uses government data on Americans’ life spans, education and standard of living to create a measurement of “human development” in the United States.

People who live in the 14th Congressional District-which encompasses parts of Queens, the Upper East Side, and Roosevelt Island-live an average of four and a half years longer and earn an average of three times more than their counterparts in California’s 20th District, around Fresno, which ranked lowest according to the Measure of America Report.

So here’s what our city’s life expectancy looks like, compared to the rest of the US: the NYC Department of Health released figures that told a surprising story: New Yorkers are living longer than ever, and longer than most people in the country! What’s more, our life expectancy is increasing at a rate faster than that of most of our fellow Americans. Since 1990, the average American has added only about 2-1/2 years to his life, while we in New York have added 6.2 years to ours!

When these figures came out, urban-health experts were impressed but confused: It turns out that those rumors were wrong: Living in NYC won’t kill you after all. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Not only are we the safest big city in America, but we are, apparently, the healthiest.

Actually, the number of people in the city dying from characteristically NYC-type issues like homicide, drugs and AIDS has decreased along with deaths from heart disease: down by a third in the last twenty years— and cancer rates have slid by nearly a fifth. And again in these cases, New York is getting healthier faster than the rest of the U.S.!

The question is why? What is the “X” factor here? In an article titled “Why New Yorkers Last Longer” in the New Yorker magazine, August, 2007, writer Clive Thompson posed the question to then-NYC Commissioner of Public Health Thomas Frieden, a doctor who had gained a nationwide reputation for his aggressive effort to push New York’s average life-expectancy figure ever higher through changes in policy.

Even Frieden admitted that public policy can’t account for all of the positive changes. When asked what the secret factor was, Thompson says Frieden showed him a figurine from the American Podiatric Medical Association and Prevention magazine labeled: “BEST WALKING CITY, 2006.” “We’ve won it a couple of years in a row,” he said.

Researchers have long known New Yorkers walk faster than anyone else in the country.

The joke goes: The easiest way to tell a New Yorker from an out-of-towner (from Iowa or Ohio) is by how fast they walk; it’s a known fact that regular walking is a powerful way to maintain your health. Scientists who study urban health argue that it’s not just that we walk more — it’s the way we walk that has a surprising spillover effect on life spans.

Welcome to the discussion.