In Alaska, Riskier Lifestyle Contributes to Shorter Longevity

In Alaska, Riskier Lifestyle Contributes to Shorter Longevity

Story tools

A A AResize


Photo: Alaska Native Marian DeWitt, 92. (Joaqlin Estus/KNBA)

Part 1. Read Part 2 here.

ANCHORAGE -- Alaska’s population is young, the third youngest in the nation after Texas and Utah. But that’s changing, with Alaska’s population aging more dramatically here than in any other part

Traditional Foods
For Native Health

Traditional foods are essential to elders’ wellbeing, according to a 2004 study by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Mellisa Heflin, the Consortium’s elders outreach coordinator, said research shows a traditional diet is high in protein, low in carbohydrates and rich in healthy fats.

The Consortium and the tribal health organization Southcentral Foundation have programs and publications promoting knowledge about and use of traditional foods.

Heflin says using donations, the Consortium hosts quarterly traditional-food meals at nursing and extended-care homes in Anchorage. “They ask for it quite frequently,” Heflin said. “They ask their activities coordinator, ‘when are they coming in?’”

Traditional foods that come to Anchorage from rural Alaska are important to a lot of elders. Agnes Mayac, grew up on the now abandoned village of King Island, 90 miles northwest of Nome. She’s 73. Her husband Teddy is aged 77.

“People we know, Natives, they bring us Native food whenever we come. A man from St. Lawrence Island is always bringing us some to taste. Even muktuk,” Mayac said.

Nonagenarian Marian DeWitt said fresh fish “was the mainstay of our diet since we’re from Southeast [Alaska].” Since her husband, John, a commercial fisherman “and a good hunter” died, DeWitt has still been able to enjoy food her relatives send from Southeast, such as fish, seaweed and fermented hooligan oil.

DeWitt, who shares a two-bedroom apartment with a daughter, a granddaughter and a great-grandson, said she was able to do more until her recent hospitalization for gallstones.

She said her birthday in November was a turning point: “Until I reached 92 everything was fine, then--Whooo. Everything just kind of aged all of a sudden. I start aging. I walked slow. I took more time to do things. I couldn’t go out like I used to, I had to wait till the weather was good. That’s about it.”

Still, DeWitt enjoys taking walks, going to bingo and getting together with friends. She attributes her longevity to a lifelong healthy diet.

Heflin understands the longing for certain foods: “It’s because of my grandmother that my three kids eat Eskimo food . . . . And they look forward to it. So it’s had a huge impact on my kids.”

Hear and read the full report at KNBA-FM.

--Joaqlin Estus

of the nation—especially for Native Alaskans, whose life expectancy, at 70, is seven years shorter than the state’s average longevity.

“The population of Alaska more than doubled in the last 40 years or so,” said gerontologist Steven Cohen of Virginia Commonwealth University. The growth rate of those ages 65 and older was four times that of the country overall, he said: “Even though there aren’t a lot of older adults in Alaska, the rate of increase is much stronger, much higher than in the rest of the United States.”

Senior Population to Triple

“We’ll see big increases for the senior population In Alaska,” said Eddie Hunsinger, Alaska’s State Demographer in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. “As of 2010, we’re at 55,000 senior Alaskans. We expect that to increase to nearly 150,000 by 2030. That’s a very dramatic increase. We’re seeing it happen right now.”

Hunsinger said Prudhoe Bay is the reason for the sharp increase. “We had the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, construction of the Transalaska pipeline and the subsequent oil boom,” he said. “A lot of folks moved here. When those folks moved here in the ’70s and ’80s, they were all working age. We didn’t have a lot of older people. So we had a more dramatic shift between pre-baby boomers and baby boomers.”

He added, “Most of the population of seniors are in urban areas. About 80 percent are in Anchorage, the Mat-Su [Matanuska and Susitna river valleys near Anchorage], Kenai, Fairbanks and Juneau . . . . More remote areas have senior citizens, but not that massive [of a] group.”

Gerontologists say the coming boom raises questions about the need for health care providers, assisted living and nursing homes, support and respite care for caregivers, plus the economic effects of a growing number of seniors living on Social Security, pensions and savings.

Life Expectancy Lower for Natives

Statewide life expectancy for Alaskans, ranked 34th in the nation, is almost a year less than the U.S. average of 78.6 years. Jay Butler, senior director of Community Health Services for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium said life expectancy for Alaska Native people, a little over 70, is lower than the 77.7 years for all Alaskans.

Butler said Alaska’s climate, and the outdoor lifestyle of many Alaskans, factor into life expectancy, too. Alaska Native people experience drowning, vehicle crashes, falls, and fire and cold injuries at 2.2 times the rate of non-Natives in Alaska, and at 2.6 times the rate of all races in the lower 48 states. He sees two drivers behind the premature deaths of Natives.

Unintentional injuries from accidents are “far and away the leading cause of death among our young people,” Butler said. “And the second is suicide. Suicide is common among Native and non-Native people, but rates are higher among Native people. And unfortunately, suicide takes our young people much more often compared to non-Natives where the peak rates of suicide are generally among older age groups.”

Steven A. Cohen, of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, said an ongoing behavioral health survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies other reasons life expectancy in Alaska is lower than in other states.

Fruit, Vegetables, and Insurance

“Alaskans were slightly less likely to have had five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, slightly more likely to be smokers, more likely to be binge drinkers, and more likely to have no health insurance,” Cohen said.

He noted the lack of health insurance is due, in part, to the low numbers of people who sign up for Medicare. “When you’re 65, you’re eligible for Medicare,” Cohen observed. “But the percent of 65 and over in Alaska that’s on Medicare is actually the lowest percentage in the United States.”

He added that people with health insurance are more likely to get routine care and screenings that can catch disease early.

“Only 76 percent of Alaskans got a checkup in the last year, compared to almost 85 percent of older adults living in the rest of the United States,” Cohen said. And twice as many Alaskans as the rest of the U.S. population “have never had a routine checkup,” according to Cohen. Although that’s only 1.1 percent, it’s “a large amount” for a state population.

Butler of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium said the numbers change as Natives get older: “As people age, the likely causes of death begin to change. And some of the things we commonly think of as causes of death, such as heart disease and cancer, begin to emerge as the more common problems.”

Federal and state agencies and tribal health organizations offer a range of programs to help Alaskans live longer and to stay in good health as they age - programs to reduce tobacco use, substance abuse, falls, injuries and suicide, as well as programs to prevent heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

This is the first of a series by Joaqlin Estus for Koahnic Broadcast’s KNBA Public Radio (broadcasting Alaskan Native voices) through a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Also, read and listen to this and other stories in her series, “Aging in Alaska 2014.