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Living longer by getting high

Posted by Richard on September 13, 2006

It’s possible that one of the secrets to a long life is to adopt the slogan "Life’s a mountain, not a beach." According to the Rocky Mountain News, you can improve your odds of surviving to a ripe old age by moving to the Colorado high country:

Way up high in Colorado, where tourists get nauseous, the locals live and keep on living – longer than virtually any other place in the United States.

A new Harvard University longevity study puts seven high-country Colorado counties in the top 10 in the nation, with an average lifespan of 81.3 years.

"I don’t let the grass grow under my feet," said Shirley Willis, 83, of Dillon, one of those Rocky Mountain octogenerians. "I’m busy, and I’m interested in what’s going on in my community. We have good air and pure, clean water."

The Colorado counties sharing the top spot for average life expectancy were Summit, Park, Eagle, Clear Creek, Gilpin, Jackson and Grand.

Tied for 24th place among the thousands of counties in the U.S. were six other high-country counties in the state: Archuleta, Mineral, Ouray, San Miguel, Gunnison and Hinsdale, with an average longevity of 80.8 years.

It also helps if you’re an Asian-American; they live 6 years longer than average. The lowest lifespan groups are American Indians, rural southern whites, and rural and inner-city blacks. The lowest lifespan states are in the South, and the District of Columbia ranks at the bottom. (To be fair, the "life’s a beach" folks can point to the fact that Hawaii is the longest-lived state. The story didn’t offer an explanation; my guess is a high Asian-heritage population.)

The statistics suggest that longevity depends a lot on lifestyle choices — smoking, drinking, diet, and exercise. That’s probably the main reason that the Colorado mountain counties rank so high, not anything related to the environment. Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the nation, one of the lowest smoking rates, and people tend to be much more physically active, especially in the mountain communities.

People out here tend to eat healthier, too, which I’m reminded of every time I return to Tennessee. "Try some of this battered, deep-fried pork sausage smothered in cheese sauce, with some fried okra, fried potatoes, and fried green tomatoes. You want sweet tea with that?"

Another factor in the mountain counties’ high life expectancy may be self-selection:

Colorado’s high-country residents have long noted that their neighbors tend to move to Grand Junction, Florida or Arizona when they grow old to escape the cold winters or because the thin air is tough on their lungs and heart.

It could be simply that retired people who choose to move to the mountains may be a hardier group than those who choose to move to Florida or Arizona.

Nonetheless, the numbers at least suggest that there are no significant environmental factors that are harmful to lifespan associated with the high mountain counties, and perhaps there are factors that are beneficial. I’m thinking in particular of ionizing radiation — people living at high altitudes are exposed to much more radiation than those at lower altitudes. That goes double for people living in former mining communities with tailings piles full of mildly radioactive minerals scattered about.

There’s been a long-standing dispute about low doses of radiation. The proponents of the "linear response" (no threshold) theory, led by John Gofman and supported, I’m sorry to say, by my friends at Life Extension Foundation, insist that there is no safe dose of radiation and we should strive to reduce our exposure as close to zero as possible. The proponents of the "hormesis" theory argue that not only is the linear response theory nonsense, but low doses of radiation have proven benefits.

I’m convinced that both logic and the empirical data support the idea that — up to a point — radiation is at least harmless and probably good for you. The long lifespans of people living in the Colorado mountains are just another set of data supporting this idea.

So, book that Vail (Eagle County) ski trip or buy that vacation home near Keystone (Summit County) — it’ll be good for your health!

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6 Responses to “Living longer by getting high”

  1. VRB said

    Does that count for living in the Smokies?

  2. Anonymous said

    The Smokies? To some degree, sure. But the highest mountains there are 5-6,000 ft., and the towns at their base are typically 800-1200. The Colorado mountains are 12-14,000 ft., and most of the towns around them are at 7-10,000 ft. (the Denver area is 5-6,000 ft.).

    I don’t know the science well enough to venture much of an opinion, but those study results suggest you have to get into that 7-10,000 ft. range to get a nice, healthful increase in radiation.

    Of course, there are other methods. Airline flights boost your radiation exposure. Or you could move to a house with high radon levels. Or spend time in front of an old microwave oven. πŸ™‚

  3. Jan from Denver said

    So, if you cook fried okra in an old microwave, do you come out even?

  4. Anonymous said

    Okra in a microwave?? No, no, no! Cast iron skillet, dammit! And don’t even think about ever washing it!

  5. Anonymous said

    ”And don’t even think about ever washing it!”: I meant the skillet — not the okra. πŸ˜‰

  6. VRB said

    We Southerners knew what you meant.

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