While Florida ranks in the middle of the pack for the health of its older residents, the Sanibel/Captiva area as a group is far more concerned about keeping in good shape well into advancing years.
Although firm numbers are difficult to track, anecdotal evidence that Sanibel-Captiva residents are in better condition than other state regions is very clear, according to local health experts. On any given day, there are (seemingly) many hundreds of people age 65 and up walking pedestrian paths, biking, gardening, golfing, running/strolling/shelling the beaches, fishing, any number of activities to keep fit. The participation numbers jump in season.
It is not uncommon for local residents into their 90s to train and keep fit at home, outdoors or at local health clubs, said Tony DiCosta, a personal trainer at the Sanibel Health Club who works with clients well into retirement. One client age 93 "is in terrific shape," DiCosta said. "I have many clients in their seventies and eighties. It is true our seventies are the new sixties.
"And I know about it, because I am a senior," he added, which is a bit of a stretch: DiCosta is a national bodybuilding champion in the masters division of age 60 and up. He is 64, bursting with health and vitality. He also survived a serious health issue due to his extraordinary conditioning, he said.
"Seniors everywhere are coming to the knowledge," DiCosta said, "that abundant health includes components of cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility."
The state picture for senior health isn't great versus the anecdotal view in Sanibel-Captiva, according to America's Health Rankings, which tracks national health in a consortium with the American Public Health Association and the Partnership for Prevention.
Florida, for instance, has a high number of overweight seniors (age 65/up) at about 25 percent. The number reporting zero physical activity is the same, with other figures like premature death, poor physical health, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, even violent crime placing Florida seniors below the middle of the pack in US rankings at 33, according to America's Health Rankings figures, with number one being the best. The numbers are of course skewed because Florida has far more seniors than most other states with some 4.2 million men and women. Percentage-wise, West Virginia is the next closest state with 16 percent of its population age 65 or older. Florida's numbers are far higher with the seasonal concentrations returning in the cool months.
And in Florida, our southwest region has the highest numbers of seniors. Punta Gorda, Naples, Bradenton and Cape Coral lead the state with the highest percentage of seniors per city age 65 and up. Punta Gorda is nearly one-third seniors.
The extreme figures could be a disaster, if seniors weren't taking better care of themselves. Even then, the US is ranked much lower in life expectancy than countries like Japan and Canada. US men can expect to reach age 77, women age 82. In contrast, the average Japanese man can expect to live another five years. It could of course be much worse. The average American man in 1880 could expect to live to age 41. Today in some sub-Saharan countries the life expectancy for men is under age 40.
One of the secrets to better health is education and income. There's clear evidence that lower income/education is a breeding ground for poor health. Smoking, binge drinking, drug deaths, obesity, each are linked in incremental steps to higher education, which determines skill and employment. In Florida, for instance, the average household income is around $45,000. In Sanibel, it's nearly double that figure, according to US Census figures. The poverty rate is under 2 percent. In contrast, Florida's child poverty rate is an alarming 25 percent, with the senior poverty rate at about 14 percent.
And as we age, our bodies begin to betray us, mostly due to weight and inactivity, DiCosta said. Flexibility, stretching, cardio, weight training, diet, each contribute to a longer and more fit life, he said, which, in turn, leads to better self-esteem and worth. Florida seniors also suffer an extraordinary number of prescription pill deaths, many of which could be avoided with better health tactics, experts insist.
"It's a whole lot harder to get back in condition" in advancing years, DiCosta said. "It's a slippery slope. And we don't slide uphill."
Dr. Dick Salerno was on that slope. The retired Sanibel physician had endured back surgery, his hands losing grip strength and ability to play the piano, his flexibility in distress. So he decided to fight back, working on his own and with DiCosta to return the stamina, power and energy he was losing at a rapid clip. A few months into goals, Salerno at age 79 is feeling stronger and more confident. He said many of his friends and older Sanibel neighbors work at staying healthy, which can be difficult "because at our age, it's easy to do nothing," he said. "You don't necessarily want to live longer, just better. It is very important to keep what you have."