Income, Residency Help Determine How Long You Live
SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — Catherine “Tinka” Zenke became a survivor at an early age. She had just turned 4 and was living in Scranton with her parents, Garfield and Emma Fellows Davies, when she and her mother fell ill with a virulent strain of influenza as it swept through the city as part of a global outbreak.
It was the fall of 1918. By the time the outbreak abated a few months later, over 900 city residents would be dead. Thousands more, including Zenke and her mom, were sickened but recovered.
More than a century after, it is among her earliest memories.
Born Sept. 30, 1914, in Scranton — where her maternal grandfather, John H. Fellows, served as mayor from 1890 to 1893 — Zenke, 104, lived in the city’s Hyde Park and Green Ridge sections until she and her husband, Albert Zenke, moved to the Abingtons in 1973.
Her neighborhoods are among those with the highest life expectancy in Lackawanna County, data shows. The data comes from a report by the United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Project that looks at different factors, such as residency, income, education level and unemployment, to determine how long you will live.
The Life Expectancy Project was a joint effort of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The project data zeroes in on much smaller populations divided among U.S. Census tracts — about 4,000 people, on average — rather than other projects that focused on counties or large cities.
Even people who live across the street from each other or a block away can have different life expectancies, the report found. A resident in the 600 block of Green Ridge Street in Scranton can expect to live to be 77.3 years old, while a resident on the other side of the tracks, in the 400 block, has a life expectancy of just 70.9 years, according to the data used in the report.
The average life expectancy for a Pennsylvania resident is 78.6 years old, which is 0.1 year less than the national average life expectancy, according to the data.
Zenke threw up her arms in an exaggerated shrug when asked if she ever pondered the reasons for her longevity.
“I just live every day — that’s all,” she said. “Some days are interesting; some are not.”
Her daughters, Sue Zenke and Jean Siebecker, said there is probably a little more to the story than that, pointing out their mother did not slow down after she retired in 1979, not long after their father’s death.
Zenke, an avid bird-watcher who was recognized by the Lackawanna Audubon Society with its lifetime achievement award in 2017, traveled around the globe on bird-watching trips in the 1980s and 1990s.
Her last international trip came in 2000, when at age 86 she climbed a mountain, trekked through rain forests and snorkeled in the coral reefs off the Caribbean island of Tobago. She also volunteered her time to a number of organizations, including delivering Meals on Wheels in Dalton and elsewhere in the Abingtons.
Zenke’s mother lived to age 94 and one of her maternal uncles made it to 100, so there may be some longevity magic in the Fellows genes, her daughters said.
A Sunday Times review of the Life Expectancy Project data, however, reveals income level is the socio-economic factor most closely related to life expectancy.
In Lackawanna County, seven census tracts had life expectancies at least five years lower than the state average. Four of the seven also were among the 10 tracts with the lowest median annual income levels, which ranged between $20,000 and $35,395.
Eight of the 10 census tracts with the highest median incomes in Lackawanna also had life expectancy rates at or above the state average. Only 14 of the 57 tracts in the county for which data was available met or exceeded the state average.
Factors such as education level, unemployment, race and lack of health insurance didn’t appear to correlate to longevity to the degree that income did.
Results were similar in Luzerne, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties.
Still, there are anomalies. A section of Kingston had the third-lowest life expectancy of the 99 census tracts in Luzerne County at 71.3 years, while that same section had the 33rd-highest median income at $50,441.
Teri Ooms, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University, said dying early and poor health are directly related to poverty, and census tracts with the lowest life expectancies primarily have lower incomes.
“In part, lower incomes are due to education attainment and the number of seniors living on fixed incomes,” Ooms said. “People cannot afford to buy the healthiest foods, do not have health insurance, or the means to understand how to purchase, store and prepare healthy foods.”
Lifestyle choices also factor into a person’s longevity, Ooms said.
“This region has a reputation of hard working and hard living,” she said. “Hard living doesn’t promote the best behaviors, and that manifests itself in lower life expectancies.”
Data showing rates of obesity, smoking and drinking alcohol here are higher than average while income and educational attainment are lower than average support this, Ooms said.
Government, business and community leaders have a vested interested in providing education, job training and interim support services to help people lift themselves out of poverty and sustain themselves, she said.
“Individuals armed with information on healthy habits and the means to eat healthy, exercise, quit smoking and drinking, etc., will lower health care costs and social services costs and increase productivity in the workforce through less absenteeism” Ooms said. “There are many issues linked together under this umbrella.”
Dr. Richard Martin, associate chief medical officer of population health for Geisinger, said there needs to be a more holistic approach to improve life expectancy.
“It’s not just about the medical diagnosis and the right prescriptions,” he said. “We also have to consider income status, educational status and to some extent racial status in larger population.”
Geisinger sends community health associates to visit certain patients in their homes to better assess their health and lifestyles and offer diet and other healthy living education, he said.
Geisinger also offers a Fresh Food Farmacy program in Scranton that offers certain diabetes patients health coaches and healthy foods.
“We want to spread that program to try to reach the less-fortunate population to help them gain education and food security, and hopefully that translates to better life expectancy,” Martin said.
For her part, Zenke isn’t sure what advice she might give someone hoping to live to a ripe old age.
“I’ve never done anything special to do it,” she said. “I take the medicine the doctor tells me to, and it’s not very much, or it doesn’t seem to be. I can’t say my memory is very good. It remembers some things, and it doesn’t remember some things I’d like it to.”
Zenke, who voluntarily gave up driving when she turned 95, is burdened by failing eyesight. But she still gets around, listens to “talking books” and tries to keep her mind sharp even if she occasionally has difficulty with recollection, she said.
“Do you think that is a key to your living longer? Keeping your mind active?” Siebecker asked.
“Who knows? There is only one person who knows and that’s God,” Zenke said. She paused and then joked, “Maybe he doesn’t want me up there.”