At 96, Dr. Thurston Griggs is just six years removed from his second career as a patrolman on the Appalachian Trail.
After a 30-year career as a professor of Chinese history and an administrator at the University of Maryland, College Park, Griggs spent most of his 80s hiking at least 12 miles a day as part of his duties as a “ridge runner,” helping hikers on one of the country’s most iconic trails. A fall on the trail at age 90 forced him to retire, and a heart attack and stroke at 95 have slowed him a bit, but the Reston resident is still fit and sharp, despite being just four years shy of the century mark.
According to a recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Griggs’ longevity is not necessarily unusual in Fairfax County, which has the highest male life expectancy of any county in the nation at 81.1 years. Montgomery County, Md., was third at 80.7 years, and Arlington and the city of Falls Church came in at slightly younger than 80, to finish just outside the top 10. Only one other county in the top 10 was east of the Mississippi River.
By comparison, the national median is 75.6, Washington, D.C.’s is 71.6 years, and in Petersburg County, Va., just south of Richmond, it’s just 66.9.
The study looked at data from 2007 and also compared the recent figures to life expectancy rates from 1987. In ’87, Fairfax County was tied with Kauai, Hawaii, for the highest life expectancy in the country at 75.4 years, with Maui and Honolulu right behind in third and fourth place. But while Fairfax men now live nearly six more years on average compared to 20 years ago, men on the Hawaiian Islands showed little improvement and are now well outside the top 50.
Women live about five years longer than men, on average, and there is no county in the U.S. where male life expectancy outpaces female. In Fairfax County, the average female life expectancy is now 83.8, good for 12th place in the country. Twenty years ago, when women in Fairfax lived an average of 80.1 years, the gender gap fit the national norm, at about five years, but with local men gaining 5.7 years since ’87 and local women gaining just 3.7 years, area men seem to be inching closer to parity.
How could a county with serious traffic issues, intense weather, a high cost of living, and lots of high-pressure jobs score so well on the life expectancy scale?
According to Dr. Ali Mokdad, the study’s lead author, Fairfax scored well in three key preventable risk factors that most closely correlate to life expectancy: smoking, obesity and high blood pressure.
Robert Young, a researcher at Boston University’s School of Medicine who studies the lives and habits of “super-centenarians,” or people who live to be at least 110, in order to better understand the factors behind longevity, wasn’t surprised to learn that Fairfax County leads the nation in male life expectancy.
“You have a lot of government workers with pensions, and there are probably more men in those jobs than women,” he said. “People often avoid going to the doctor to save money, but if you have a good health plan, as government workers do, you don’t have to worry about those kinds of things.”
Other key factors to local good health may be Fairfax’s highly educated population, first-rate medical facilities and abundant recreational opportunities.
According to Young, another factor key to longevity is staying active. Walter Breuning, a Montana man who died in April at age 114 and is believed to have lived longer than any other American man, reportedly worked until he was 99. Leila Denmark, a 113-year-old who lives in Athens, Ga., continued to work as a pediatrician until the age of 103, and Griggs worked at UM until he was 82.
Young said the key isn’t necessarily to stay at a job particularly if it isn’t a dream job but to stay engaged with activities an individual is passionate about. Only about one in 5 million Americans will live to be 110, but a few simple pieces of advice can help extend lives.
“First, don’t be overweight,” Young said. “Second, exercise every other day a good brisk walk is great. And get a good night’s sleep: Studies show that those who get less than six hours sleep per night don’t live as long.”
But for every rule there are exceptions, and there’s good news for sybarites as well. The oldest verified person in history, Jean Calment, a Frenchwoman who died in 1997 at the age of 122, reportedly smoked until age 117; Breuning only quit smoking cigars at 99 because the habit became too expensive; and Neva Morris, an Iowa woman who died last year at 114, cooked her food in lard and bacon grease, had an incurable sweet tooth and liked to drive “powerful cars very fast” up until she was 95 years old, according to her son.
Griggs, however, never smoked, has kept his weight around 150 pounds, hiked religiously, and never drank alcohol. Go figure.
“My advice is pretty obvious,” he said. “Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t eat too much. You can eat sweets, but don’t get carried away.”