It’s official. Life is easier in California—everybody knows this, and a study released last week confirms it. A report from the New York-based website The Daily Beast revealed that residents of San Jose live longer that those of any major American city. Honolulu, was second on the list, while five other California cities are found the Top 20: Anaheim, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland.
Examining lifespan data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention going back 10 years, the study found that local men live to be 79.2, on average, while women live to be 82.9.
The article didn’t give any clues about why California—and particularly San Jose—is such a good place to grow old.
“There are a multitude of contributing factors to longevity,” says Martin Fenstersheib, health director for the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. “First, we’re a very diverse area.”
Fenstersheib says San Jose’s diversity affects the numbers not because of genetics but because of cultural practices. Asians, for example, are known to live longer than Westerners, and Silicon Valley has attracted a lot of Asian immigrants over the past couple of decades.
“They sometimes don’t have the same bad habits that we have, eating fast food and things like that,” Fenstersheib says.
He also attributed the spike in life span to local habits: “We know that people in Northern California eat better and are more involved in athletic activities.”
Heart disease and cancer are the two most common causes of death, Fenstersheib says, pointing out that the number of people who smoke in Silicon Valley could be a key factor to the population’s longevity. Around 8-10 percent of people here are smokers, he says, which is lower than the rest of California and far lower than the national average. About one in five American adults smoke, according to the CDC.
Money could also factor into allowing people to live longer in San Jose and its environs. The area’s tech industry is booming once again, and according to polling by the city’s planning division, 38 percent of all San Jose households earn more than $100,000 a year, while the average household income is $95,958.
Economically depressed areas have it far worse when it comes to health, says Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Places that have a lot of economic opportunities are going to attract a lot of people,” he says, “and areas that lose people to poor economic opportunities typically leave the least educated, the least skilled and the least healthy.”
Fenstersheib agrees. “Social determinants have a big impact,” he says. “People who have a higher education have a higher socioeconomic status, and they do better in general.”
A collection of well-regarded hospitals in the area, including the world-renowned Stanford Medical Center, could also be seen as helpful to extending life and confronting life-threatening diseases.
But with health-care costs skyrocketing in recent years, having insurance as well as the money to pay out-of-pocket expenses could be just as important.
“There is something to be said for wealth and capital assets to aid health,” says Wendy Ng, chair of San Jose State University’s sociology department. “But I hate to say that as a sociologist, because we have a high rate of inequality. We have a lot of poverty.”
“I’m kind of a pessimist on that as a sociologist. We have good health care for people who can afford it.”
Those who can’t afford health care tend to live in less affluent areas, which can often go hand in hand with crime. Public officials frequently cite San Jose’s long-standing reputation as the nation’s safest big city, and while the murder rate has had a noticeable spike in 2011 compared to recent years, San Jose is still safe in comparison to many other metropolitan areas.
“I think this kind of information is good,” Fenstersheib says. “It tells us we’re in a good place to live. It’s good for the community to know that, and it’s good for business.”
If San Jose needs a new city slogan to attract more businesses to the area, it may have just found its answer: Nothing keeps a company afloat like having living, breathing customers.
While the Daily Beast, a news website published by former New Yorker and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, did not go into much detail about its findings, the article inspired a number of comments, including one from a bitter former resident and one from a local booster.
Writing under the handle “Stupid Politics,” a commenter who claims to have lived here for years writes: “I’m surprised people in San Jose don’t die early from sheer boredom.” To which proud local gal Jade Cichy reples: “Yep, boring. Too much sunshine, open space hiking and mountain biking. Too close to Monterey Bay and San Francisco. Too many awesome Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. Far too many taquerias. And I hate being able to walk from my house to the best indoor arena in the Bay Area to see the best hockey team in the Pacific Division. It sucks!”
A commenter going by Kruelgor does his or her best to spoil the feel-good vibe by pointing out that “America is still ranked number 36 in the world for life expectancy because of the chemicals put into the food supply.”