RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Why Do Asian American Women Live Longer?

So, I’m browsing through a Time magazine (Feb. 22, 2010), and on the cover is the headline, “The Science of Living Longer.” The cover photo is of three persons who are related, a grandmother, a daughter and a granddaughter. They are very attractive, WASPish types with blondish hair and blue eyes, ages 7, 37 and 65.

The subject of aging and living longer is of great interest to many of us, since a large number of us are getting up there in years and the baby boom generation will be hitting retirement age not too long from now. I retired years ago, and so for me the subject of aging is beyond academic speculation. It’s something I live with.

The charts and graphs are pretty fascinating. For instance, the country where people live longest is Macau, with an average of 84.4 years. Japan is next, at 82.1 years. The U.S. is ranked 12th at 78.1 years, and, within the U.S., people in Hawai‘i live longest — 79.8 years. In Angola, the country with the lowest life expectancy, an average of 38.2.

Buried in the fine print on the topic of U.S. life expectancy by state is this startling fact: “Longevity is influenced by racial, economic and cultural factors as well as by gender. Among all groups, Asian-American women live longest” (p. 68). Surprise! Since I fall into this demographic group, I am intrigued and amused by this but also a little annoyed that there isn’t any follow-up information.

This fact is not mentioned or remarked upon in the rest of the 22-page health section, so I am left with many questions. In fact, the long-range studies that are cited in the article do not include Asian American women. The fact that people in Hawai‘i live longest has to factor into this since the islands are home to a large Asian American population. There’s also lots of sunshine in Hawai‘i and so everybody gets a healthy dose of Vitamin D, I imagine. And just who is counted as Asian American? Are we genetically lucky? Do we have particularly healthy lifestyles? Besides, is it a good thing or not that we live the longest?

No doubt genetics play some role in this situation, though according to the article, it’s only about 30 percent. Japan is ranked second in longevity, so obviously Japanese people have some things going for them. But look at the other statistics. China ranks 17th with a life expectancy of 73.5 years. This would imply that life in China is harder than in some other Asian countries.

I wonder if diet is one of the big factors. Asian cultures usually have a diet that involves eating of a lot of vegetables along with less meat and dairy products. Still, we who live in the U.S. have learned to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, as well as hamburgers, French fries and gooey desserts.

Maybe we don’t eat as much as the average American. I certainly find large steaks more than I can consume at the dinner table, and I tend to cut them in half and save a portion to eat at another meal. I lost my taste for sugary soft drinks a long time ago, and I have even lost my craving for chocolate. I’m not really dieting, but my weight has remained more or less steady for many years.

I’m going to throw these questions out to our readers. Look around and let me know if you notice that the Asian American females that you know and are related to have lived to a particularly ripe old age. And what about their health? I had an aunt who lived to be 104, and her sister, my aunt Toki, is still hale and hearty in her mid 90s. Their lives have included periods of stress and ill health, but they survived without being crippled physically or emotionally. I am intrigued by these questions, so I’d like to know more.

Chizu Omori is the co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” A recent transplant from Seattle, she now writes from Berkeley, Calif., and can be reached by e-mail at chizuomori@earthlink.net.

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