The term "life expectancy" is a phrase used by health statisticians to describe the estimated number of years left in a person's life. But life expectancy is much more than a term for how long we live. The quality of those years is important. Sometimes we have lowered our expectations without even realizing it.
The balancing act of dealing with the daily stress generated by family matters, making a living, personal relationships, and societal challenges like violence in our community, discrimination, poverty and other issues, takes a toll on our health and wellbeing. The current economic downturn and the financial turmoil it is creating for so many families and our nation as a whole, only adds to the distress. Prolonged stress has been shown to be a major factor in creating an environment in the body for disease. It is possible to get so bogged down in just trying to keep your head above water that life in constant survival mode can literally make you sick.
Making health a priority is a matter of life and death. Despite medical advances over the past century in health and longevity, racial disparities persist.
African Americans statistically have the shortest life expectancy of all racial and ethnic groups. We are also more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses, carrying a disproportionate burden of conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, HIV, and depression, regardless of our educational level or socioeconomic status.
But we don't have to get stuck in the statistics. We are a deeply spiritual people and we know that there is always hope.
At the public level, there is a president in office firmly committed to putting systems in place to promote equality in access to healthcare, and it is critical that we make our voices heard in the policy arena when decision makers raise issues related to the delivery of programs and services that threaten the health of our community.
There are also things you can do as an individual. Make up your mind to take charge of your health and vow to live each day to the fullest. Improve your chances for wellness by getting age-appropriate health screenings and improving lifestyle behaviors like eating better nutrition and getting the appropriate amount of physical activity. Even a small change in behavior can have a large impact if you are consistent and committed. Network with relatives and friends and make staying healthy a family affair. If you are reading this, it means you have breath in your body. No one is promised tomorrow, but you have been given this moment. You are fortunate enough to be able to decide right now how to spend your time, your energy, and your attention.
So, what is your "life expectancy"? And what are you ready to do to increase it?
[Eleanor Brownn, is a social gerontologist whose business is helping women live longer and healthier lives, and she is the author of the personal memoir "MILE 9: The True Story of a Lifelong Couch Potato Who One Day Made a Decision That Changed Everything" (Bookmark Publishing, NY, 2009).]