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Riskier lifestyles contribute to shorter Alaskan life expectancy

By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA News Director

Demographers predict the population of people age 65-plus in Alaska is going to continue to rise, to more than double, actually, in coming decades. That’s due, in part to increased life expectancy, which is rising around the world. The highest is in Switzerland, at almost 83 years. U.S. life expectancy is 78.6 years. It’s a year less than that for Alaskans, which is ranked 34th in the nation for life expectancy, and even lower for Alaska Natives.

Dr. Steve Cohen is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Speaking at the Gerontological Society of America annual meeting in November, he said an ongoing behavioral survey by the CDC gives a few reasons life expectancy in Alaska is lower than in other states.

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

Cohen says 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,” says Cohen. “But the percent of 65 and over in Alaska that’s on Medicare is actually the lowest percentage in the United States.”

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

“Only 76% of Alaskans got a checkup in the last year, compared to 84% almost 85% of older adults living in the rest of the United States. A large amount, it’s 1.1 percent, have never had a routine checkup. That’s about twice the rate of not having a routine checkup of people living in the contiguous states.”

Dr. Jay Butler, Senior Director of Community Health Services for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium says life expectancy for Alaska Native people is lower than the 77.7 years for all Alaskans.

“For Alaska Native people, the life expectancy is a little over 70 years,” says Butler, “which unfortunately is about seven years shorter than for non-Natives living in Alaska.”

Butler says Alaska’s climate, and the outdoors 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. Butler sees two drivers behind the premature deaths of Natives.

“One is unintentional injury, sometimes called accidents. That is far and away the leading cause of death among our young people,” said Butler. “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.”

“As people age, the likely causes of death begin to change,” said Butler. “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 [among Alaska Native people].”

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. 

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