In extreme old age, blacks outlive whites on average

    Many African Americans live too intimately with violence and discrimination; too far away from nutritious food and health care. For those reasons, and many others, at every point, from birth through the late 60s, life expectancy for blacks is shorter—worse—than for white Americans.

    In the Gap: Voices from the Health Divide is a news and dialogue partnership between WHYY and 900 AM WURD.

    Series producer Taunya English will discuss this story on WURD’s HealthQuest Live show at noon Tuesday.

    Health disparities between black and white Americans are well documented; this month, In the Gap explores an interesting reversal in that trend.

    Many African Americans live too intimately with violence and discrimination; too far away from nutritious food and health care. For those reasons, and many others, at every point, from birth through the late 60s, life expectancy for blacks is shorter—worse—than for white Americans.

    In extreme old age, though, there’s a paradox.

    Duke University gerontologist Keith Whitfield says once they reach age 80 or 85, on average, black Americans live longer than whites.

    “They are actually a very, very select group of people who have resilient factors. Some of it is genetic factors, some of it is what they do in life and some of it is perspective,” Whitfield says. “I think it’s a little bit of nature and a little bit of nurture.”

    Many chronic illnesses typically associated with old age, such as high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes, claim and kill African Americans in middle age. Those who survive, Whitfield says, may be particularly hardy.

    “They perhaps may be one of the more important groups to study because they’ve survived so much to make it into later life, that they may hold the keys for everyone to be able to live a successful life,” he says.

    Some health researchers are now talking to African American elders for clues to their “exceptional longevity.”

    Edward W. Robinson Jr.

    East Mount Airy resident Edward W. Robinson Jr. was born in April 1918. The lifelong Philadelphian says connection and ancestry have sustained him.

    “I know who I am. I know where I came from, I know the city, I know the street. Ninety-nine and 44 one-hundredths percent of black people have no idea where they are from. I’m a Nigerian in America,” he said.

    “Let me get back to why I am living this long: a direct descendant of a Benin, Nigerian, whose name was Nzinga Mwali who was brought over to America in 1813 to Trenton, N.J. We migrated down from Trenton to Philadelphia in 1865,” he said.

    Robinson says knowing that lineage has buffered him from the stresses of being a black man in America.

    “Went to school, a public school in Philadelphia, where I was called the n-word over and over again, 90 percent white and 99 percent racist. Stress, stress,” says Robinson. “No one comes and tells you that ‘white is right and yellow is mellow. Brown you can stick around and black get back.’ No one tells you that, you absorb it.”

    “There is a scripture in the Bible, which says: ‘Honor thy ancestors, that thy days may be long, in the land which the Lord, thy God, giveth thee.’ But if you don’t know them, how are you going to honor them?” he says.

    Robinson has 18 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He’s passing on the history he learned from his great-grandmother.

    “We lived in the same house, so she taught me who her grandmother was and who her mother was. Mary Diane Thomas and John Thomas, my great-grandfather. Her daughter was Mary Anna Russell. My grandfather’s name was Alfred Russell. My father, Edward Robinson, Sr., and my mother, that’s Ethel Diane, and that brings it on down to me.”

    Dorothy Allen

    Dorothy Allen was born March 4, 1923. She keeps busy and goes to church.

    “I was born right here in South Philly,” she says. “My church is Mt. Hebron Baptist Church. Born and raised in Mt. Hebron. Always been my church.”

    “Most of the time, I go out every day to do the things I want to do. My grandchildren, they don’t want me driving, but I tell them, what am I going to do, I ain’t gonna do a lot of walking,” says Allen.

    “I was out yesterday taking one of my church members–she had to go to the store, she’s 80. There’s a lot of seniors they don’t walk good and maybe they don’t have the money to buy a wheelchair. If I can help them, I try,” Allen said.

    Her best advice: persevere.

    “First it was cancer, now I have high blood pressure … what else do they say I have? I just don’t remember now. I suffer with pains, but if I had somewhere to go today, I’d be gone,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here, pain or no pain. I take the medicine they give me, but I don’t give up. I keep going.”

    For 20 years, Allen worked in a textile factory as a seamstress. In her 50s, she founded a community center and ran it for the next 30 years.

    “I think if you just sit home and do nothing, you get on away from here. Find some things to do,” Allen said. “I didn’t think I’d be here at 88. I’m here.”

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