A report this week about life expectancy of Alaska residents as a whole contains some good news. We are living longer.
But it also contains important information that state health officials, the governor and state legislators should take note of. Life expectancy for people who are Alaska Native or American Indian increased, as did the life expectancy of all other groupings in the state. That’s good, of course. The noteworthy item is the widening life expectancy discrepancy between the Alaska Native/American Indian population and the population of all others.
Here are the numbers, as reported Tuesday by the Alaska Section of Epidemiology in the state Department of Health and Social Services. The report encompasses 1995-2015.
Life expectancy for people who are Alaska Native or American Indian increased to 69.7 years from 68 years. Life expectancy for all others increased to 78.1 years from 75.2 years. For the state population as a whole, life expectancy increased to 76.4 years from 72.9 years from 1990 to 2015.
What’s behind the gap in life expectancy between the Alaska Native/American Indian population and all others? The greatest factors, according to the state report, are unintentional injury, heart disease and suicide.
Unintentional injury and suicide combined added 2.1 years to the gap between the two groups, the report notes, adding that Alaska Native/American Indian men ages 15-29 had, from 2009 to 2013, “disproportionately higher mortality rates from both injury and suicide than any other age/sex combinations in Alaska.”
What to do about the gap?
Alaska should ensure the continuation of programs — and expand them, if proved necessary — that encourage healthy diets and lifestyles, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease and, in some cases, cut cancer rates among all Alaskans.
The report by the Alaska Section of Epidemiology states that, “Unintentional injury and suicide prevention efforts that assist the (Alaska Native/American Indian) population would aid in decreasing mortality rates” and closing the life expectancy gap within Alaska.
How does the 76.4 years for life expectancy of Alaska’s overall population compare with the national life expectancy? We’re still a bit short. The national life expectancy is 78.8 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC reports that life expectancy at birth increased to 78.8 years from 72.6 years for the total U.S. population from 1975 to 2015. During that time, it increased to 76.3 years from 68.8 years for males, and to 81.2 years from 76.6 years for females.
The number of years is increasing both nationally and in Alaska. Those are both good findings, of course, but the increasing numbers of years we are on the planet does raise — and will continue to do so — lifestyle, economy and government policy questions. More years of life means more health care, more concerns about saving for retirement, and, increasingly, retiring later in life. Done working at 65? Maybe not so much any longer.
Life expectancy numbers are important both in Alaska and beyond. They show us where, as with the life expectancy gap between the Alaska Native/American Indian population and the rest of the state’s residents, we might want to review our policies and programs.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Aug. 11