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Welcome to America's Longevity Capital

The longevity capital of the world, as you may recently have read in the AARP Bulletin, is the Nagano region of Japan, where women can expect to live an average of 87.2 years and men an average of 80.9 years. Experts chalk it up to a healthy diet, regular physical activity, extended work years and aggressive government intervention.

Nagano's counterpart in the United States?

It's Montgomery County, Md., a fast-growing bedroom community just outside of the nation's capital. Statistics compiled by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show that Montgomery County residents live an average 83.3 years (men, 81.6; women, 84.9), edging out Marin County, Calif., just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, by the teeniest of slivers.

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MoCo, as locals know it, doesn't have crisp mountain air or healing hot springs, and no one would describe the hard-driving suburb of Washington, D.C., as a haven of tranquility. According to experts, its standing has mostly to do with two factors: "Education is a powerful correlate of health status," says Samuel Korper, an epidemiologist who serves on the county's commission on aging and is the senior adviser for aging studies to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "So is income."

Research shows that the more education you have, the healthier - and wealthier - you are likely to be. And that has more to do with where you live than how you live. "It may surprise you that your ZIP code is one of the best predictors of how long you will survive," as  AARP's Debra Whitman recently pointed out. If MoCo and Marin resemble the demographics of your ZIP code, your neighbors are likelier to live a long time.

Nationally, 31 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree. In MoCo, 57 percent do, and the county has the nation's highest percentage of postgraduate degrees (30 percent). It's also one of the nation's most affluent counties, with a median household income of $97,000 - nearly double the U.S. average of about $53,000.

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What's more, relatively few of the county's adult residents smoke (9 percent versus the national average of 13 percent) or are obese (18 percent versus 25 percent). And the death rates from motor vehicle accidents and homicides are way below the national averages.

As Ulder Tillman, a physiatrist and the county's public health chief, sees it, preventive care is also an important part of the equation - beginning at the cradle, with prenatal care programs, and later including such interventions as mental health and substance abuse programs.

MoCo residents also have lots of ways to socialize together, to continue to learn and to give back to their community, according to John Kenney, the county's chief of aging and disability services. For older residents, he says, it's an important buffer against isolation, depression and the misuse of alcohol and prescription drugs - all of which take a toll on life expectancy.

The Maryland county offers a lot of opportunities for exercise and recreation, with more than 400 parks, 100-plus miles of trails for walking and biking and bike lanes that soon, County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett points out, will connect the entire county.

Asked if local governments should view boosting longevity as a worthy goal, Leggett thinks for only a split-second before answering: "Yes," he says. "What's the alternative?"


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