Rural Alaska might be plagued by economic woes and high suicide rates, but there is good news coming out of a national study on life expectancy published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
While life expectancy is falling in some other rural areas of the nation, it has increased significantly across Alaska and especially so across the state’s northern tier. Life expectancy across Arctic Alaska increased by from six to 13 years over the period from 1980 to 2014, according to the study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The study is based on an examination of county, or in Alaska’s case borough, death rates nationwide.
Life expectancy for those born in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of the 49th state continues to lag behind the national average, but there, too, average life expectancy has been on the upswing.
Overall, Alaska is on the positive side of a study that warns of “large—and increasing—geographic disparities among counties in life expectancy over the past 35 years. The magnitude of these disparities demands action, all the more urgently because inequalities will only increase further if recent trends are allowed to continue uncontested.”
The study targets “counties in South Dakota and North Dakota (with) the lowest life expectancy, and counties along the lower half of the Mississippi, in eastern Kentucky, and southwestern West Virginia also had very low life expectancy compared with the rest of the country.”
Most of those areas, like Alaska’s Y-K Delta, are home to struggling or failing economies and poverty.
The study’s authors note a strong and continuing correlation that ties shorter lifespans to socio-economic status and race or ethnicity in the U.S. Simply put, it has long been illustrated that poor people of color do not, on average, live as long as wealthy, white people.
But the study adds that “socioeconomic and race/ethnicity factors at the county level is (now) largely mediated through behavioral and metabolic risk factors.”
“The findings on factors related to variation in life expectancy have important policy implications,” it adds. “In particular, policies and programs that target behavioral and metabolic risk factors have the potential to improve health in all locations but especially those that are currently most at a disadvantage, consequently reducing geographic disparities.”
Alaska has been the sight of a variety of programs directed at changing unhealthy behaviors. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has been a leader in health promotion and disease prevention programs targeted specifically at Alaska Natives.
The JAMA study generally shows the biggest increases in life expectancy in Alaska boroughs that are predominately Native. Correlation does not mean causation, but those are areas that have benefitted from the health consortium’s effort to end tobacco use, reduce accident injuries and improve eat habits.
The JAMA study implicates diabetes, high-blood pressure, smoking, obesity and lack of physical activity, in that order, as the greatest threats to life expectancy in the U.S. All now show up as greater threats to longevity than race or poverty, but the study notes many of the elements leading to shorter life spans are interconnected.
The data analysis does suggest that if you want to live longer the best moves on a personal level are to get a job, an education (the more the better), and boost your family income. There is a surprisingly strong correlation between unemployment and a shortened life span.