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Study: Life expectancy in Franklin County is 78 years

November 30, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. ? At age 77, Allen Twigg of Chambersburg did not appear very worried that, on average, a Franklin County, Pa., resident can expect to live to be 78 years old.

"At least I've got part of a year yet," joked Twigg, who turns 78 in January.

On Friday, he was handing out information about the Meals on Wheels program at the 2006 Senior Fair at Southgate Mall. The fair was hosted by state Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin/Cumberland.

According to "Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States," a study that appeared in the online PLoS Journal, a Franklin Countian can expect to live longer than the average Pennsylvanian, whose life expectancy is 76.7 years, or 31st in the nation.

Among Pennsylvania's 67 counties, life expectancy is higher in 11 counties, including neighboring Cumberland, where it is 78.8 years, and Adams, at 78.2 years, according to the study.

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The county with the highest life expectancy in the state is Centre County, at 79.4 years. The only county with a life expectancy under 75 years is Philadelphia, where it is just 72.3 years.

At 92, Bob Zeis of Chambersburg is among the fastest-growing demographic age group in Franklin County ? those who have passed their 85th birthday.

From 1980 to 2000, the number of people older than 85 rose from 1,288 to 2,452, an increase of 90 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In terms of percentage increase, the next highest ? at 79 percent ? was among those 75 to 84 years of age, according to census data. People 65 and older made up more than 16 percent of the county's population in the 2000 census, up from 12 percent in 1980.

The slowest growing segment of the population is children younger than 5, whose numbers grew by 6 percent, while the population of those ages 5 to 17 grew 7 percent over the two decades.

Zeis' longevity might have something to do with his luck at picking parents.

"My mother was 99 and my father 92" when they died, Zeis said. "Now those are good genes."

Zeis on Friday was going to meet with a group of other nonagenarians ? a reunion of his Chambersburg High School class of 1933. He said he expected about 10 or so people to be there, although as many as 30 of the 180 graduates from that year still might be alive.

"I can't fall back on my genes," said Twigg, noting his father lived to be 95, though his mother died at 44 years of age.

Albert Cook, 87, of Chambersburg, also had parents who lived into their 80s. He also is a beneficiary of improved medical care.

Wounded during World War II while in the Pacific, Cook said he recovered well enough to be reassigned to the European Theater. In more recent years, he has had triple and quintuple heart bypass operations.

Heredity is one factor, but so is lifestyle. Eighty-year-old Dick Diffenbaugh and his wife, Jean, 79, are mall walkers, doing three or four laps of the concourse at Chambersburg Mall every day, despite his having had a stroke two years ago.

They keep mentally and socially active with bridge and other pursuits, Jean said.

"We used to dance a lot" before his stroke, Dick Diffenbaugh said.

"We're going to get back to that," Jean Diffenbaugh said.

Zeis, who volunteers with the Red Cross, said being active has been important throughout his life.

"When I retired, I didn't come home to sit in front of the television all day," he said.

An aging population poses challenges, particularly in terms of paying for the fast-rising costs of medical care.

"In Pennsylvania right now, there's half a million people that have Alzheimer's or some related form of dementia," said Erin Parker of the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. About 4,000 of them lived in Franklin County, according to data from the 2000 census, she said.

"Certainly, with our aging population, it's going to be a large problem ... one with the potential to bankrupt the health-care system," Parker said.

Overall, Pennsylvania ranked 31st among the 50 states in longevity. Hawaiians have an average life expectancy of 80, while Mississippi ranks last at 73.6 years, according to the Eight Americas study, which looked at factors such as geography, race and income.

Asian-Americans, for example, live longer than other racial groups, people in northern states live longer than those in the South and wealth generally correlates with longevity, according to the study.

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