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National Perspective | POPULATION

Lot of Reasons Why Midwest Corners Centenarian Market

July 15, 1999|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — When the Census Bureau reported last month that the Midwest has more than its share of the amazingly long-lived, local papers trumpeted the news with headlines like "Midwest Corners Centenarian Market" and "Midwest Has Best Odds for Living to 100."

Maybe it was the clean air, folks speculated. Or the friendly neighbors.

Maybe it was all those farm-fresh vegetables. Or the less-stressful pace.

Whatever the reason, surely this was cause for celebration, "a chamber of commerce-type moment," as one geriatrician called it. The Wichita Eagle used the occasion to pat its state on the back, writing in an editorial that "Kansas is a great place to live . . . and live . . . and live."

But hold the champagne--or the prune juice.

For the statistics can be looked at in quite another way. Yes, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas have an unusually high percentage of centenarians in their populations. That does not necessarily mean, however, that people in those states live longer. Rather, Farm Belt demographics may skew toward the elderly because so many young residents have left, seeking better jobs, bigger cities or nicer weather.

Being Left Behind

In other words, centenarians may make up a disproportionate percentage of the population because they're left behind when their kids and grandchildren move on.

"One of the realities is that there's a lot of out-migration of younger and middle-aged people [from these states] to warmer climates," said Dr. John Morley, a geriatrics professor at St. Louis University.

Census statistics seem to bear that theory out.

Iowa, for instance, tops centenarian charts, with 724 of these oldest of the old. South Dakota is second, with 178 centenarians (a relatively high number for such a thinly populated state). But take a look at another age bracket: the 25- to 44-year-olds. Folks in this category make up just 28% of Iowa's population and 27.5% of South Dakota's. In California, they account for 32% of the population.

"We just don't have young people coming back into the state," sighed Bob Mercer, a spokesman for South Dakota's governor.

Deflating news, indeed. Still, geriatricians aren't writing off the notion that the Midwest may somehow provide a boost to help folks hit the century mark.

Belt of Longevity

"There's always been this fabled northern belt of longevity," stretching from Nova Scotia south through Wisconsin and into Minnesota and the Dakotas, said Dr. Tom Perls, a geriatrics professor at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the new book "Living to 100."

Perls has studied this longevity belt and believes it has nothing to do with young people leaving their elders behind. Rather, he said, it's all in the genes: Longevity runs in families, and the many centenarians in these states come from "good old Scandinavian stock--or Scandinavian, Irish, English, French and Canadian stock." Their genetic mix predisposes them to live longer. And they gain an added edge by taking good care of themselves, Perls said.

Research on centenarians--there are about 70,000 nationwide and they are, believe it or not, the fastest-growing segment of the population--has revealed several keys to an extra-long life.

The standard rules of good health apply: don't smoke, eat a low-fat diet, exercise often and minimize stress. But geriatricians also say it's important to nurture good friendships, to make plans for the future, to stay upbeat. Above all, they urge, enjoy life, without dwelling too much on the inevitable setbacks.

And if you want to hedge your bets, it can't hurt to move to the Midwest.

Other regions of the country "don't have the pleasures that you get in a quiet life out on the farm or in small towns," said Midwest partisan Mildred Brown, 101, who spends hours each day listening to books on tape in her Des Moines retirement home.

Fellow Iowan Althea Bucklew, a great-grandma 23 times over who celebrated her 102nd birthday a few weeks back, thinks she's pinpointed the reason Midwesterners make it to 100 so often: "Not as much mischief here," she said.

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