Roy Raborn will celebrate his 100th birthday next month and he attributes his longevity to always being active, by necessity at the beginning and by choice now.
“I came along at a point in time when we didn’t have things as easy as they have now,” said Raborn, who grew up as the 15th child of parents in Greenwood, S.C. “We had to more or less walk” to get anywhere. Now at Brandon Wilde for the past 16 years, exercise is a daily part of his life.
“They keep you busy,” he said.
He is not alone in Columbia County, according to studies released Wednesday. The county leads the state in sufficient physical exercise among men and ranks high in life expectancy and low in obesity, according to research led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Elsewhere in Georgia, however, it is a starkly different and much bleaker outlook.
In the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that the U.S. has made small gains in life expectancy since 1990 – from 75.2 to 78.2 in 2010 – but far less than other comparable countries.
The gap between men and women in life expectancy has narrowed considerably from 1990 – when women averaged 78.3 years versus 71.5 for men – to 2010, when the numbers were 80.8 years for women, 76.1 for men.
But in 42 percent of U.S. counties, female life expectancy did not increase. In 15 counties in Georgia, female life expectancy decreased since 1985, according to accompanying studies looking at county-level data.
There are probably a few key factors involved in the lack of gains among women, said Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the institute in Seattle and one of the lead authors of the studies.
“Obesity has had a bigger effect on women,” he said, noting that it is a rising problem almost everywhere in the U.S. “Actually no community has reduced obesity, but some have been able to hold it at a relatively constant level whereas in other places it has gone up by as much as 16 percentage points.”
In Georgia, female rates of obesity vary widely, even within the Augusta area. Columbia County had the eighth-lowest rate in 2009, at 31.4 percent, while Taliaferro County had the second-highest rate, at 55.5 percent. Georgia’s average is 37.1 percent and the nation’s is 35.1 percent. Richmond County was in the middle of the pack, with a rate of 43 percent.
For physical activity in men in 2009, Columbia County had the best rate, with 63.4 percent getting sufficient exercise. Taliaferro was the worst, at 37.9 percent, and Richmond County came in slightly above the Georgia average, with 56.7 percent.
In life expectancy, Columbia County had the eighth-best lifespan for men, at 75.1, just above the national average, while Richmond and McDuffie counties had the 13th-worst rate, at 70.3 years for men, well below the state average of 74.4 years.
The gulf between outcomes in Georgia caught the eye of the researchers. It was no surprise to Dr. Ali Mokdad, the head of the U.S. County Health Performance team for the institute, who lived in the Atlanta area for 20 years when he worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heading up the annual survey on which some of the data is based.
“You could see a huge difference between what you have in Atlanta and other (areas of Georgia),” he said.
It probably can be attributed to socioeconomic factors, access to timely medical care and “preventable risk factors” such as poor diet and smoking, Mokdad said.
The best counties in Georgia “are standouts, successes for substantial improvement in life expectancy, improvements in physical activity and relatively modest increases in obesity,” Murray said. “There are examples in southern Georgia that are quite the opposite. So Georgia does stick out as a state that has marked diversity.”
Seeing improvements in physical activity does give the researchers hope that progress will be possible in the future, he said.
It makes sense to Warren Cook that increasing physical activity would be a benefit. After quitting smoking at age 45, the retired biologist took up running and now walks about 25 miles a week on the trails around Brandon Wilde.
“I just think the whole thing enhances your quality of life,” said Cook, 80. “I assume it is going to enhance life expectancy.”
To Raborn, who survived Omaha Beach during D-Day in World War II, it boils down to a simple message.
“You’ve got to keep moving,” he said.