So what is the latest science on why generally some of us live so much longer than others?
Two fascinating studies about mortality and longevity deserve our attention. One, just out last week from UCLA, was authored by Steven Horvath, a “bioinformatician.” He put together a new way to measure how humans age: not by the standard of diet, or education, or body-weight, or socioeconomic status, but rather by how we are built to withstand life’s wear and tear by how our genes adapt — how they change their function in response to life’s new demands.
The study points to genetic makeup as the key to enduring life’s pitfalls, and it specifically identifies the Native American ancestry of most Latinos in the U.S. as the genetic link that gives them the advantage in the longevity game.
This UCLA study concluded, after a range of tests and analyses of more than 5,000 participants, that Latinos in the U.S. have a longer average lifespan than do non-Latino whites. And this is in spite of a higher rate among Latinos of various physical inflammations and such diseases as diabetes and obesity.
Earlier, in December of 2015, the National Academy of Sciences released yet another striking report with a more sobering conclusion: there has been a “marked increase” in the mortality rate of middle-aged, non-Hispanic white Americans between 1999 and 2013. Prior to that, this demographic for decades had an improving, increasing lifespan. This study was coauthored by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. They tell us that this rising mortality is trending big-time among all non-Hispanic whites, and particularly in those with less schooling. And from a broader perspective, they note that no other ethnic group in the U.S., and no other country, has experienced “such a dramatic reversal of fortune.”
Here is an even more compelling factor of the Case and Deaton study: this unique increase in mortality among non-Hispanic whites is attributed first and foremost to the effects of drug and alcohol abuse, including liver disease, drug and alcohol poisoning, and other related effects. While we are already well aware that such abuse crosses all ethnic, educational and economic backgrounds, this study proves it hits hardest among non-Hispanic whites. True to their backgrounds as economists, the coauthors offer economic explanations, such as a fall since the 1990s of median household incomes. Yet they still admit to an underlying, increasing availability and use of opioid pain medication. Seemingly reluctantly, they concede that economic miseries have long pervaded the most of the U.S. population, but may well be only part of this mortality red flag.
In fact, economic woes only partially explain why so many turn to drugs and alcohol. This study offers further causes: that trust and confidence in almost all institutions have dropped severely, as has decorum. An increasing sense of isolation from our communities and neighborhoods is unhealthy, resulting in more adults than ever not volunteering for anything. The percentage of high school seniors nationwide who report use of illicit drugs is at 25. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a 286 percent increase in deaths from heroin overdoses between 2002 and 2013, with a 40 percent increase between 2012 and 2013 alone, all having so much to do with a mortality rate that can be measured across the entire non-Hispanic white demographic.
Studies like these raise in our own minds some intriguing “what if” questions, maybe worth studies of their own: what if non-Hispanic whites in America are simply the first, perceptible demographic to be found so much in the grip of alcohol and drug abuse as to suffer this perceptible, so far unique, rise in mortality? What if other segments of the population might soon follow with their own lifespan reversals? What if, in addition to genetics, the power of the mind, and maybe the self-discipline that goes with it, might also be a factor in adapting to changes that life throws at us. What if that might compensate for this genetic advantage?
This column and others have put a needed focus on the opioid epidemic, the decline in religion and spiritualism, family breakdown, our brittle communities where trust, neighborliness, even voting continually erode, and a truly declining, often debased culture. If the condition of America, and of our towns and communities, is to ever get on the upswing again, let’s give this theory of genetic deficits its due, but give a close look at ourselves, and recognize our obligations to each other. Maybe that’s where the power of mind and spirit comes in. Any academics out there who might study that?
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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