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Where Good Men (and Women) Die Old

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, September 23, 2010

There are few less-alike places in the continental United States than Ashley, N.D., and New York City. But Ashley (population 882) has one remarkable thing in common with New York (population 8,363,710). Its older residents enjoy longer and healthier lives than in most other parts of the country.

Having spent some time in the rural Great Plains (mainly Nebraska) and a lot of time in New York City, I've long noticed the presence in both societies of many 90- and 100-year-olds. And the reason one takes note of them is that they are out and about and having a reasonably good time.

North Dakota has one of the highest proportions of residents age 100 and older in America. McIntosh County, which includes Ashley, has the highest percentage of people 85 and older.

This is not a simple case of the younger people having left. The proportion of people 65 and above is higher in Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia than in North Dakota, but they are more likely to die before 80, according to a New York Times article on longevity on the Plains.

What's the secret? The people in Ashley enjoy the two things most associated with healthy aging: strong social ties and exercise. If an older resident doesn't show up at the Dakota Family Restaurant for coffee, friends go look for that person. The town's older population is weighted with retired wheat farmers and ranchers who've accumulated a lifetime of hard physical work. When they retire, they continue gardening.

The rural Plains offer other advantages conducive to a healthy old age: clean air and reduced stress. There's less traffic and less hurry. And there are not the huge differences in wealth that can cause anxiety and strain relationships.

New York City's air isn't pure. The pace can be crazy, the traffic snarled, and differences in economic status stark.

But the older New Yorkers do get lots of exercise. They walk mostly everywhere -- to the market, drug store, house of worship, coffee shop. They have to do it whether they are feeling depressed or lazy or their knee hurts. If they take the subway, they negotiate stairs. (I recently saw an older woman on two crutches work her way down stairs into Penn Station. It took her a long time, but she did it.)

Because of dense living patterns, many New Yorkers have strong social networks. Even when they don't, they still interact with others in elevators, in stores and on the streets. In some ways, getting old there is less stressful because there's no need for a car. Thus, losing one's ability to drive is neither limiting nor traumatic.

My 95-year-old father recently attended the birthday party of a 108-year-old neighbor in his New York apartment house, Faith Keane Reichert. My father turned out to be one of the younger attendees. Mrs. Reichert's kid brothers, ages 101 and 103, were also there.

Mrs. Reichert was (still is!) an expert on fashion advertising, and she has lots of young visitors. Two years ago, she and her caretaker took a bus tour of Philadelphia.

Does natural selection play a part in this? The "healthy immigrant" theory might be relevant. Most of the elderly in McIntosh County have German or German-Russian ancestry. Only the tough immigrated to the Great Plains.

New York's older people may be self-selected. Some demographers theorize that hearty New Yorkers tend to stay in town, and those with more delicate health move to warmer and quieter locations.

Whatever. Exercise and social networking are clearly key to the quantity and quality of late life. So throw out those articles on the "best places to retire." They're useless.

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