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Before you die, get healthy, Alaska

May 23rd, 2011 | Lew Freedman Print this article   Email this article  

Every time there is a foot race like the Heart Run with 6,000 people, or a triathlon with hundreds of women entered, the masses in Anchorage seem to indicate that they are as health conscious as Dr. Oz.

Maybe those people are. However, it seems that the rest of Alaskans who aren't out jogging, walking, bicycling, climbing Mount McKinley or doing the backstroke in the Arctic Ocean, are living in the 1950s because they are still smoking cigarettes, drinking after work, with dinner, and before bedtime. And don't ask what they're doing at bedtime besides sleeping.

It has always been said that progress comes late to Alaska, and maybe that is true about taking care of one's body as well as the latest techno developments.

Recently, a study that examined the United States county by county indicated that Alaska has a higher rate of premature deaths than the country as a whole. By premature, the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute means dying before 75.

What we would like to think is that if Alaskans are dying younger than their counterparts in Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, or other well-known retirement havens, it's because they are more reckless at heart and are having more fun.

When Mr. Whitekeys ran the Fly By Night Club and presided over his long-running Alaskana comedy show, it contained a bit about coming to Alaska and finding a million ways to die. The reality side of the routine that always got laughs is that it sounded true.

You could get attacked by a bear, get caught in a blizzard with no compass, fall into a crevasse, get lost in the woods and unravel from hypothermia, be mistaken for a ptarmigan and get shot by a hunting partner, have an erratically cast fish hook pierce your jugular vein and bleed to death, or simply fall out of a boat on Resurrection Bay and drown.

Most of those things would count as "premature" death. But this study wasn't even talking about your average wilderness experience gone wrong.

This entire medical study revolved around all of the things Alaskans do to themselves that loosely come under the heading of bad habits. These are the things your mother told you not to do when you were growing up that result in you ignoring her advice and slowly killing yourself.

The Wisconsin study indicates that the national average of premature death before age 75 is 5,564 per 100,000 residents, but in Alaska it is 7,649. That means if you want to live longer you have to move away.

Overall, the study shows that Alaskans smoke more, drink more, have more sexually transmitted diseases, and are generally fatter than people in other states. This could all be about longer winters. Perhaps Alaskans stay in the house more and out of boredom they smoke more, drink more alcohol, eat more, exercise less, and have sex more often than Americans who get more sunshine.

It seems to me that many of these traits or foibles are consistent with hanging out in bars, as well. Bars, of course, are in business to sell alcohol, so it stands to reason the clientele will drink a lot. Until laws were passed prohibiting smoking in many indoor buildings, bars were more likely to be smoke-filled rooms than back-room political gatherings.

Naturally, the longer you sit in the bar the hungrier you get and it's so much easier just to buy a bag of chips, or purchase some snack off the fryer than it is to uproot your butt and head down the street for a meal. As if at midnight you are going to rush off to the nearest restaurant to eat broccoli instead of Doritos, anyway.

And, of course, the only reason you went to the bar in the first place was with the hope of getting lucky enough to increase your chance of finding true love or contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

Add up all of the reasons why the University of Wisconsin says Alaskans might die younger and you realize we just call it Saturday night.

Lew Freedman is a former Alaska journalist and the author of many books about the state.


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