Life Expectancy of Alaska Natives Is 70, Seven Years Shorter Than State's Average
Alaska's senior population, while comparatively small, is increasing rapidly. The statewide population doubled in the last 40 years, and the growth rate of the elderly (65 and older) is four times that of the U.S. overall, gerontologist Steven Cohen of Virginia Commonwealth University told New America Media.
In 2010, the state counted 55,000 senior Alaskans. By 2030, they expect that number to near 150,000, as many of the then-young, working-age Americans who moved to the state in the 70s and 80s during the Prudhoe Bay oil boom and construction of the Transalaska pipeline, continue to age.
The vast majority of seniors, 80 percent, reside in urban areas, namely Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Kenai, Fairbanks and Juneau. The urban elder boom increases the need for health care providers, assisted living and nursing homes, explains Joaqlin Estus in one segment of her six-part series on "Aging in Alaska" for Koahnic Broadcast’s KNBA Public Radio (broadcasting Alaskan Native voices), made possible through a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.
The U.S. average life expectancy is 78.6 years, and that of Alaskans is 77.7 years. But the life expectancy for Alaska Native people is just barely over 70 years, Jay Butler, senior director of Community Services for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, told Estus.
Alaska's rugged outdoors and the general lifestyle of its residents—particularly of Alaska Natives who subside off the land—are greatly responsible. Alaska Natives experience drowning, car crashes, "falls, and fire and cold injuries at 2.2 times the rate of non-Natives in Alaska," Estus relays, "and at 2.6 times the rate of all races in the lower 48 states."
Injuries as a result of these kind of accidents are the leading causes of death among Alaska Natives. A close second is suicide, which is sadly ending the lives of many Alaska Native youth. In contrast, for non-Natives, suicide is more common among older age groups.
As Alaska Natives age, reasons for death change, with heart disease and cancer emerging as the more common problems.
Estus' article also underscores the significance of traditional foods to elders' health: diets high in protein, low in carbohydrates and rich in healthy fats are essential—like fresh fish, seaweed and muktuk. Thanks to donations, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has been able to host quarterly traditional-food meals at nursing and extended-care homes in Anchorage.
Read all six segments of Estus's series here.