Numerous studies have indicated that where we live affects our longevity. Our environment can also affect the number of years we live free of major chronic conditions (our health-span). One study suggests that most people will live about 20% of their lives with chronic conditions but that lifestyle can influence the number of healthy years we enjoy. Our activity levels, our social engagement, our overall environment, availability of fresh food, and our access to healthcare are some of the factors that influence health-span.
However, even if we lengthen our health-span, it is inevitable (unless we experience sudden death) that we will experience a period of decline. Ideally, we can set our sights on increasing the period of healthy living while decreasing the period of failing health and dependence. When we do reach a period of a major decline, we better hope we are prepared.
Living in a Healthy Environment
I am fortunate to live in a region where the temperature is moderate and an abundance of outdoor opportunities – hiking, biking, swimming, golfing, and more exist. I also live in a community where the majority of people are over 50 and tend to be healthy and active. In my immediate neighborhood, most who live around me are at least sixty with about 20% who are in their eighties. This time of year, I usually see several of my neighbors working in their yard when I take the dog for walks or head out for a country jog.
Very few of us in my neighborhood grew up in rural Southern Oregon. Many of us came from big cities. Originally, I came here to teach but am now retired. Others moved here after they retired. The cost of living is reasonable. Housing is still affordable. We have a mix of political views in my neighborhood, but that doesn’t stop any of us from caring for each other. People watch out for each other and inquire when they don’t see someone out and about.
The rural area where I live in Southern Oregon generally has good air quality. But because we are a timber area, we often have to contend with fire outbreaks and smoke pollution during some late summer months.
Because we live in a rural area, there are numerous local farms that sell a variety of produce – some almost year-round. We can also go to U-pick farms or take advantage of the moderate temperatures and grow some of our own fresh fruits and vegetables. We also have more wineries in the area than I can count. I love going to wineries – in my view, each glass of wine should count as a serving of fruit.😊
Medical care can be tricky in my community. We have a limited number of healthcare providers who are taking new patients – particularly those who are Medicare enrolled. But some of my neighbors have found excellent doctors who have cared for them over the years. At least a half-dozen of my neighbors have said that if they needed hospitalization, they would choose one an hour north of our community rather than going to the local hospital (except in cases of emergency).
Beyond a Long Health-Span
Overall, I am fortunate to live in an area where my environment generally supports the concept of a longer health-span and a shorter period of decline. Nonetheless, it would be fool-hearty to think that we could forever be as active and healthy as many of us are right now.
Even though I consider myself quite healthy at 68, I have become more prone to injuries over the past couple of years—in the past few years, I’ve bruised or cracked a rib, injured both knees, and injured my back. I’ve recovered from each setback, but I’m aware that I’m not invincible.
So far, most of my neighbors have managed to maintain their independence until they were into their late eighties and nineties. A couple of the oldest widows in my neighborhood have hired caregivers to assist them as needed.
Research warns us that the majority of us will eventually need some sort of long-term care assistance. This is a reality for about 70% of the aging population. We need to be emotionally and financially prepared for that likelihood. But in the meantime, we also want to increase the possibility of a longer health-span and decrease the length of time we may need some degree of long-term care. I believe our environment can be an important factor in supporting our health-span.