What if you retire and live to be 100 — or older? If you live in Minnesota, your chances are better than most. Minnesota is the healthiest state in the U.S. for older adults, according to the 2013 Senior Report from the United Health Foundation. The study looked at 24 measures that included both outcomes — the prevalence of illnesses like cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and determinants — those social and environmental factors that can predict the health of a population. While Minnesota ranked No. 1 for seniors in both categories, the determinants provide the most useful insights for those of us working toward a long and healthy life.
Some of the report’s findings are not surprising. Minnesota seniors are by and large nonsmokers. Also not surprising: Very few Minnesota seniors are underweight (although we rank fairly high in senior obesity).
Other determinants are a little more unexpected. The report cites the high rate of dental care as a major contributor to the health of Minnesota’s seniors. While a regular checkup might seem like a small thing, recent studies show a link between oral bacteria and heart disease, clogged arteries and stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition, diabetes increases the risk of gum disease, and people with gum disease have a harder time keeping blood sugar levels under control.
Other conditions that are more common in seniors can affect dental health, and frequent visits to the dentist can help prevent or minimize damage: Osteoporosis causes bone loss in the jaw, leading to tooth loss. Sjogren’s syndrome causes dry mouth, and the lack of saliva can lead to tooth decay.
Another factor that you might not associate with good health after age 65: Minnesota seniors have an exceptionally high rate of volunteerism. Of course, statisticians would be quick to point out that cause and effect can’t be determined by the findings. Do Minnesota seniors volunteer more because they’re healthy and active, or are they healthy and active because they volunteer?
Minnesota ranks No. 1 in the percentage of able-bodied adults over age 65, and No. 3 in the percentage of senior adults who rate their health as “very good” or “excellent.” That could suggest that Minnesotans volunteer in high numbers simply because they’re able to.
Bob and Rosie Geyen, high-school sweethearts who have been together more than 50 years, have been active volunteers with Dollars for Scholars, Shakopee Crime Prevention, Meals on Wheels, Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging, and Friends of the Library. Their retirement philosophy, they say, came from Rosie’s grandfather, who said, “Don’t let the flies sit on you.”
Anna Stoehr, who turned 112 last October, is also a case study in healthy aging. When profiled by the Star Tribune in May 2012, she was still living at home, buoyed by frequent visits by friends and family. She continued to enjoy baking, quilting and board games like Scrabble. She had only recently accepted twice-weekly assistance from a home health aid. She told the Star Tribune, “Sometimes people say, ‘Well, you’re working too hard.’ It’s not work if you like it.”
Minnesota ranks exceptionally low in dollars spent per adult over age 65 living in poverty — just $542 per capita. The No. 1 ranking state in the category spends more than $8,000. Yet we’re No. 7 in social support — just two percentage points off the No. 1 ranking. Taken together, those statistics suggest that neighbors are helping neighbors, bridging the gap in state spending.
While the report holds mainly good news for Minnesota seniors, there is definitely room for improvement. There is a high incidence of chronic drinking, giving Minnesota a rank of 32 in that category. More than one in three Minnesota seniors is physically inactive. And we are near the bottom of the rankings for seniors who have a dedicated health care provider.
Another item of concern: Like the rest of the country, Minnesota’s rankings show wide disparities within the senior population. Those with a college degree have better health status and lower rates of obesity and inactivity than those with a high school education. For example, obesity is just 18.4 percent in Minnesota seniors with college degrees, and nearly 30 percent for those who didn’t finish high school. Another study showed that the median net income for households headed by whites over age 65 was six times higher than that of older black households.
The Senior Report doesn’t include what might be Minnesota’s secret weapon: Coffee. The National Cancer Institute tracked 400,000 volunteers who were 50 to 71 and free of major diseases in 1995. By 2008, men who drank two or three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died. For women, it was 13 percent.
According to the New York Times, other studies have shown that coffee reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes, basal cell carcinoma and prostate cancer. What’s more, coffee may slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.
Minnesota icon and coffee enthusiast Garrison Keillor celebrated the findings. “Yes, I know people who have quit coffee and who will tell you in their small tremulous voices How Much Better They Feel and goody for them,” he wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “but to me living without coffee is like trying to climb up the outside of your house using suction cups. Why not just use the stairs?”
In short, the secret for a long and healthy life may be as simple following the advice our mothers gave us decades ago: Go outside and play. Help others. Stay in school. And have another cup of coffee. □