The Asian-American Women of Bergen County are Ageless Wonders

In Bergen County, a cluster of Asian-American women defy the ravages of time. What can they teach the rest of us?

"I'm living every day going up and going down the stairs." --Hyukyung Kang, 85.
"I'm living every day going up and going down the stairs." --Hyukyung Kang, 85.
Photo by Ed Kashi/VII

As the sun rises over Bergen County, the women who are more likely to live longer than any other Americans are rising, too. They are rising in their apartments in senior housing complexes in Palisades Park and Fort Lee and in their bedrooms in the houses they share with their children and grandchildren in Closter and Leonia. They are rising early because they have always risen early, and they hold to such habits with a rigor born of belief and experience.

They are Asian-American, Korean mostly, but also Indian, Chinese, Filipino and Japanese, part of a wave of immigrants who have changed the face—and the age demographics—of the state’s largest county over the last several decades. Many came as adults, following their children who had earlier come for school or work, and they brought with them the ways of their home countries.

They don’t smoke and they don’t drink alcohol. They eat more vegetables than meat. They swear by the restorative power of kimchi, turmeric, or ginseng mixed with some honey and hot water. They take the stairs when they can, and they walk their grandchildren to school. They do yoga and tai chi. They’re never very far from their children. And they can expect to live into their 90s, the longest life expectancy of any ethnic group in any county in the United States.

“It’s remarkable, the numbers that we’re finding for them,” says Sarah Burd-Sharps, codirector of Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, which will be releasing its latest population report early next year. Its previous study in 2014 found that Asian-Americans in New Jersey have an average life expectancy of 89.4 years. (The state average in 2014 was 80.3 years; the national average, 78.9.) That study didn’t break down the data by gender or county, but an earlier one that did—by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health—found that Asian-American women in Bergen County had an average life expectancy of 91.1 years, the highest of any group anywhere in the nation.

“We’re working now on a study of the New York metro area, and we have found that Asian-Americans in Bergen County are off the charts in terms of life expectancy,” says Burd-Sharps, who adds that “the world over, women outlive men by an average of about four or five years.”

So why Asian-American women, why in Bergen County, and what can they teach the rest of us?

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