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Life and death in West Michigan

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United States life expectancy dropped in 2017, decreasing from 78.7 years to 78.6 years. That’s not much of a decrease, but it’s the third year in a row with shortened life spans. These decreases have singled out men. Their life expectancies decreased from 76.5 to 76.1 years over the three years, mostly due to sharply higher drug overdoses and suicide rates, while women’s life expectancies remained steady at 81.1 years. The last time life expectancy decreased more than two consecutive years was a century ago, mostly due to the Spanish flu pandemic brought to the U.S. by soldiers returning from Europe after World War I ended.

Here’s how life expectancies in Michigan and West Michigan compare with U.S. averages:

United States

 Overall   78.6
 Males  76.1
 Females   81.1 

Michigan 

 Overall   78.2 
 Males  76.1 
 Females   81.1

West Michigan

 Overall   78.1 
 Males  75.5
 Females   80.1 

In this table, West Michigan and United States data are from the past year or two. Numbers for the state of Michigan come from government analysis of the 2010 census. Results were just released to the public late in 2018. The outdated Michigan life expectancy data makes comparisons with either U.S. or West Michigan life expectancies less reliable.

Where does West Michigan data come from? We looked at every obituary appearing in the Grand Rapids Press from mid-January 2017 through April 30, 2018, a total of 6,020 deaths mentioning ages of decedents.

You may find it interesting that West Michigan’s average age at death was slightly lower — one-tenth of a year — than Michigan’s average. That is a little surprising to West Michigan residents. We tend to believe we have healthier lifestyle behaviors than the rest of the state and that we have access to better health care. A recent report from the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute ranked Ottawa and Kent counties — the two dominant population counties served by the Grand Rapids Press — second and 12th healthiest in Michigan. But that good health doesn’t show up in longer lives. Unfortunately, obituary data isn’t detailed enough to explain the discrepancies between actual lifespans and better reported health. The discrepancy could be due to the outdated Michigan data.

Here are a few other highlights describing newspaper obituary statistics:

 Most frequent age at death   91 
 Age of oldest person  110 
 Number of people living to at least age 100   75
Odds of living to at least 100  1 in 80 

Proportion of deaths who were:

 Female   49.6% 
 Male  50.4%
 Average number of children   3.06
 Girls  1.51
 Boys  1.55

Obituaries show that more males died (50.4% of the total) than females (49.6%). Before you conclude the grim reaper has it in for males, look at the last two numbers above showing the average number of children deceased parents had. More baby boys were born than baby girls. That difference explains why more males than females died: There were more to start with.

When looking at the effect children have on life expectancies of their parents, it is common to limit studies to parents who have lived to at least age 50. Doing so eliminates those who couldn’t have children either because they died prior to reaching childbearing age or died prior to completing childbearing years.

Obituary data shows that, on average, each child added 2.5 years to their parents’ life expectancies. Parents with two children lived an average of 5 years longer than those without children, those with three children lived an average of 7.5 years longer and so on.

These findings are consistent with the majority of other researchers who have studied how children affect life expectancy. The logic for longer lives is attributed mostly to the benefits of children looking after their elderly parents. Individuals who don’t have children lose this caregiver benefit. Here’s a caveat: Because these findings are based on averages, individuals cannot ensure they will live longer by purposely having more children. Many parents died at relatively young ages, no matter how many children they had, and many people with no children lived to be much older than average.

We also attempted to measure the effect of deep religious faith on life expectancy. All researchers who have studied this effect measure a person’s religious feelings by asking the question, “How often do you attend religious services?” The greater the frequency, the greater the assumed degree of faith. We used a different approach based on obituary data. We categorized each person based on how the obituary described them. They were deemed to be deeply religious if obituaries described them as such, if they held positions in their churches, or if obituaries contained other statements indicating deep religious beliefs. If there was no mention of religion or the only mention was information about the funeral being held in a church, the deceased weren’t considered deeply religious.

Based on these religious criteria, we found that being deeply religious added 2.3 years to life expectancy for those who lived to at least 20 years old, the age at which the majority of people are free to decide their own religious feelings. The most common explanation for why religious people live longer is the presence of church-related social networks whose members tend to watch over each other.

Another often-cited explanation for higher life expectancies is lifestyle choice behaviors. Several researchers found that people who regularly attend church services have fewer unhealthy behaviors — such as drug addictions and use of tobacco products — than those who did not.

Finally, we found that marriage has an important effect on life expectancy. Being married with no children decreases the life expectancy of those who lived to be at least 50 years old by nearly seven years. Because most people with children are the same people who are married, the two factors are highly related.

Gregg Dimkoff, Eric Hoogstra and Angela Zondervan work in the finance department of Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business.

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