Why peo­ple in Chatham live longer than any­where in US

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Front page - BY JOE JOHN­SON jjohn­[email protected]­ald­sun.com


Peo­ple liv­ing in one part of Chatham County lead the na­tion in life ex­pectancy.

Chatham County ranks fourth in North Car­olina in over­all life ex­pectancy. Chatham (81.2) trails neigh­bor­ing Or­ange (82.0), which tops the Tar Heel state, and Wake (81.6), which comes in third. Watauga County in the moun­tains is sec­ond in the state with an av­er­age life ex­pectancy of 81.7 years. Durham County is sev­enth at 80 years.

But in the county’s north­east cor­ner, peo­ple are squeez­ing out a few more years than av­er­age, re­searchers at the Na­tional Cen­ter for Health Statis­tics found. Af­ter ex­am­in­ing death records from across the na­tion, re­searchers de­ter­mined the av­er­age life ex­pectancy for peo­ple liv­ing in north­east Chatham was be­tween 90 and 104 years. Their model, be­cause it was based on sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis, only was able to re­turn a life ex­pectancy range.

Den­nis Streets, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Chatham County Coun­cil on Ag­ing, learned of the dis­tinc­tion af­ter col­leagues shared it from Gov­ern­ing maga- zine. The mag­a­zine fo­cuses on pub­lic-sec­tor in­no­va­tion for state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment and ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials.

“We looked at it with a sense of some pride, but at the same time, know­ing we have a lot to do be­cause there is some di­vide and dis­par­ity among folks, not just in Chatham, but in all com­mu­ni­ties,” Streets said. “We are among the high­est in the dif­fer­ence in life ex­pectancy be­tween whites and African-Amer­i­cans, for ex­am­ple.”

Life ex­pectancy for whites in Chatham County is 82.3 years, while it is 77.9 for AfricanAmer­i­cans.

Re­cent data from the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion put U.S. over­all life ex­pectancy for 2017 at 78.6 years, a slight de­crease from 2015 be­cause of in­creased sui­cides and over­dose deaths from the opi­oid epi­demic.

The re­searchers com­pared life ex­pectan­cies in cen­sus tracts across the coun­try. The cen­sus tract in Chatham with the high­est ex­pectan­cies con­tains the large re­tire­ment com­mu­ni­ties of Fear­ring­ton Vil­lage and The Pre­serve at Jor­dan Lake.

Cen­sus tracts, which pro­vide uni­form geo­graphic units for data pre­sen­ta­tion, al­low sta­tis­ti­cal com­par­isons to be made from cen­sus to cen­sus. They gen­er­ally have be­tween 1,200 and 8,000 peo­ple, with an op­ti­mum size of 4,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau.


Chatham’s pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing, es­pe­cially among re­tirees.

“What we’re see­ing is that Chatham has re­ally emerged as a re­tiree des­ti­na­tion, partly be­cause of the prox­im­ity to the Tri­an­gle area,” said UNC-Chapel Hill de­mo­graph­ics ex­pert Re­becca Tip­pett.

“Peo­ple can have their cake and eat it, too,” she said. “There are so many nat­u­ral ameni­ties, like Jor­dan Lake, while be­ing near the cul­tural and the broader re­sources that come with liv­ing near one of the largest metropoli­tan ar­eas in the state.

The county’s prox­im­ity to hos­pi­tals at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke Univer­sity make it


The cost of liv­ing also is less than in neigh­bor­ing Wake, Or­ange and Durham, which have ur­ban cen­ters.

“It’s less about Chatham County cre­at­ing these life ex­pectan­cies as much as the in­di­vid­u­als mov­ing to Chatham County are bring­ing with them char­ac­ter­is­tics as­so­ci­ated with very high life ex­pectancy,” Tip­pett said.

Chatham is still largely ru­ral. At about 710 square miles, it is one of the ge­o­graph­i­cally largest coun­ties in the state. But its pop­u­la­tion of about 71,000 peo­ple is spread out.

Its two largest towns – Siler City and Pitts­boro – of­fer some ser­vices to the ag­ing pop­u­la­tion through the Coun­cil on Ag­ing, which has se­nior cen­ters in both towns. They may not be as swanky as club­houses in Fear­ring­ton or The Pre­serve, but they do bring peo­ple to­gether for so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties.

“If you look at the ar­eas of the county where house­holds are eco­nom­i­cally stronger and com­pare those with other ar­eas of the county, there is still work to be done,” Streets said.


Larry Ross sees the ag­ing pop­u­la­tion in Chatham County.

Ev­ery Mon­day Ross de­liv­ers hot lunches to se­nior cit­i­zens as a Meal­son-Wheels vol­un­teer. He shares a route with other driv­ers who drop off food to se­niors who often live alone and no longer cook. It takes him about an hour to visit eight to 10 peo­ple. There are 12 routes in Chatham, four that orig­i­nate in Pitts­boro and eight that start in Siler City.

Mary Reaves is one of Ross’s stops. He’s been de­liv­er­ing meals to her about three years.

Reaves, who is 84 and has lived in Chatham County all her life, gets around in a wheel­chair.

“Meals on Wheels is the best thing that ever hap- pened in Chatham County for se­niors,” she said.

But Ross and his col­leagues also keep an eye on their se­niors. They look for sub­tle changes that may point to de­clin­ing health. The aim is to keep the se­niors in their homes as long as they can safely take care of them­selves, Ross said.

“We want them to re­main as in­de­pen­dent as they can be,” he said. “And that’s what they want. When­ever you ask them how they’re do­ing, it’s al­ways the same, ‘I’m fine.’ ”

The vol­un­teers make their runs Mon­day-Fri­day. They also fol­low the sched­ule set by the school sys­tem. If school is out or de­layed be­cause of weather, Meals on Wheels doesn’t op­er­ate in Chatham.

When the snow storm hit in early De­cem­ber, the food de­liv­er­ies weren’t made. But the vol­un­teers still did their check-ins with a phone call.

“So many of the peo­ple live on the back roads and they’re not go­ing to be cleared,” Ross said. “It’s as much a safety is­sue for the vol­un­teers as it is for the peo­ple we serve. We still check on them to make sure they’re all right.”


Chatham County must get younger if it is go­ing to take care of its older pop­u­la­tion, County Com­mis­sioner Diana Hales said.

An ag­ing pop­u­la­tion presents chal­lenges to lo­cal gov­ern­ments and health-care sys­tems as that pop­u­la­tion rises.

The 2017 es­ti­mated me­dian age for Chatham County res­i­dents was 47, up from 38.7 in 2007 and above the state av­er­age. As of 2017, the per­cent­age of res­i­dents 65 and older was nearly 24 per­cent, while those age 19 and younger were about 22 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to state de­mo­graphic data.

To change that course, Hales said the county needs to at­tract younger work­ers who earn more and pay more than prop­erty taxes. Coun­ties get most of their money from prop­erty taxes, but they also get a share of sales taxes col­lected by the state. More peo­ple and busi­nesses would give the county more money to pay for ser­vices, in­clud­ing those for its ag­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Hales sees Chatham Park and other new de­vel­op­ments as a mag­net that could ac­com­plish that goal.

Chatham Park is a megade­vel­op­ment that will turn Pitts­boro from a small town of about 5,000 res­i­dents to a city of about 60,000 peo­ple dur­ing the next 30 years. De­vel­op­ers want to build more than 20,000 homes and the types of busi­nesses and en­ter­tain­ment des­ti­na­tions for res­i­dents who want a “live, work, play” com­mu­nity.

“The dilemma is to ad­dress the needs of an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion and at the same time cre­ate a vi­brant econ­omy in Chatham County that brings in the busi­nesses that hire mil­lenials,” Hales said. “Are mil­lenials look­ing for a ru­ral or ur­ban ex­pe­ri­ence? From the re­search I hear, it’s the ur­ban ex­pe­ri­ence where there is ac­tiv­ity ver­sus a ru­ral area where you don’t have nightlife. That’s a con­cern. Chatham Park could very well be a ma­jor at­trac­tion.”

JOE JOHN­SON jjohn­[email protected]­ald­sun.com

Larry Ross has been a Meals on Wheels vol­un­teer in Chatham County for four years. He de­liv­ers meals to 8-10 peo­ple each week and checks on their well-be­ing.

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