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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

State ranks among highest in life expectancy

 •  Hawai'i's mixed plate of races complicates census
 •  Chart: Hawai'i by the numbers, 2000 and 1990
 •  Drop in Native Hawaiians attributed to new options
 •  Advertiser special: Hawai'i's Census 2000

By Susan Roth
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Hawai'i has one of the highest life expectancies in the nation and a higher percentage of senior citizens than the rest of the country, census data show.

Hawai'i also has seen a larger jump in the percentage of baby boomers of ages 45-54 than the rest of the nation, according to the results of last year's census.

Because of the aging of the baby boomers, the national median age increased from 32.9 in 1990 to 35.3 in 2000, the highest it has ever been. Both the aging of baby boomers and the high life expectancy caused the median age in Hawai'i to jump from 32.6 to 36.2.

Nationally, the 65-and-over population increased at a slower rate than the overall population for the first time in the history of the census. In fact, the percentage of the national population that is 65 and older dropped slightly in the 10-year period, from 12.6 percent to 12.4 percent.

But in Hawai'i, the 65-and-over population grew, from 11.3 percent to 13.3 percent, with the Big Island showing the most dramatic increase — a 33 percent jump — followed by Maul's 29 percent increase.

Experts believe that ethnicity, diet, Hawai'i's active lifestyle and the state's famous health-care system all contribute to longevity.

"Japan has one of the highest life expectancies among countries," noted Dr. Alvin Onaka, chief of the Office of Health Status Monitoring at the state Department of Health. People of Japanese ancestry made up nearly 17 percent of Hawai'i's population in 2000. In Hawai'i, women of Chinese descent have the highest life expectancy, followed by women of Japanese descent, Onaka said.

"The Asian diet is one of the most healthy diets and when people are healthy, they live longer," he said. "There's a very nice climate here, and maybe less stress. Others would say it's because of our low number of uninsured people. The majority of our population has access to health care."

Hawai'i is the only state that requires employers to offer health insurance.

Momi Lovell, director of the census information center at Papa Ola Lokahi, the Hawaiian health care service, agreed that ethnicity makes a difference. But a different picture emerges when looking at Native Hawaiians, who have persistent health problems and less access to health care than others in the state, she said.

"Asians have a longer life expectancy than Hawaiians," Lovell said. "They have less illnesses plaguing their communities. Our change of lifestyle, diet and families having to assume a more Western lifestyle in order to survive — all these changes have affected our lifespan."

Retirees moving to Hawai'i account for part — but not most — of the increase in senior citizens, experts said.

"I think it's mostly people who have lived here," said Joe DeMattos, associate state director for the American Association of Retired Persons. Also, he said, the state's jump in baby boomers partly came from migration of young people in the 1960s and 1970s.

DeMattos and others view the census data as ammunition for policy planning.

"The census profile provides the first crystal-clear glimpse of the impact of the maturing of baby boomers," he said. "The data makes a compelling argument for the need to ensure that Social Security remains whole and that Medicare is evolved to meet the needs of the changing marketplace."

That marketplace is going to be more active, more informed about health-care choices and more likely to seek preventive health care than previous generations, DeMattos said.

"This will be a whole different group, with different interests and a higher education level," agreed Joan Bedish, executive director of the Kapahulu Center, which offers myriad programs for seniors.

The center, which serves about 800 people, with 500 people a month participating in some activity, has not seen an increase in membership, Bedish said. Most members are women in their 70s, most are Japanese, and most are healthy and vigorous, she said, adding that exercise classes are the biggest draw.

A recent Kapahulu survey, still being tabulated, shows baby boomers are looking for more recreational activities, exercise, nutrition programs and basic health screenings.

"This gives us an idea of what's coming down the road," Bedish said. "It's going to be interesting to see what they want."