HEALTH REPORT

BEATING THE ODDS

Cape Bretoners work hard to defy their region’s last-place longevity stats

JOHN DeMONT October 29 2001
HEALTH REPORT

BEATING THE ODDS

Cape Bretoners work hard to defy their region’s last-place longevity stats

JOHN DeMONT October 29 2001

BEATING THE ODDS

Cape Bretoners work hard to defy their region’s last-place longevity stats

BY JOHN DeMONT in Sydney, N.S.

The retired steelworker and 13-year veteran of the gruelling Cabot Trail Relay footrace steps off his motorcycle at Polar Bear beach in the tiny Cape Breton community of South Bar. “Did you bring your bathing suit?” 72-year-old Eddie MacDougall demands of a visitor. Since the water temperature is just 15° C, the answer is no. That brings hoots of derisive laughter from the six men climbing over the rocks to the beach, all but one in their 70s. Maynard Morrison, the oldest at 78, has trouble seeing and needs to hold an arm to make his way down. A metal plaque above the beach commemorates William (Hoot) Jameson, who died of heart failure at 66 after a dip in the South Bar waters on New Years Day, 1997.

But a little cold water isn’t going to stop these guys. During the warmer months they hit the surf almost every day; even in the dead of winter the Polar Bear club convenes at least once a month. The boys are giddy as teenagers as they strip down to their bathing suits and pull caps over what’s left of their white hair. “We know we all have to go sometime,” says Vince MacDonald, a tall, erect 73-year-old who also spent his working days in Sydney’s now-defunct steel mills. “I want to go while I’m doing something, not sitting on the sofa.” Single file, they enter the water, their white bodies a sharp contrast to the icy green. Then, led by MacDougall— who goes for a five-kilometre swim when he really feels like getting a cardio burn— they head for a jagged point of land a couple of hundred metres away.

It’s an inspiring sight, seniors braving the Adantic waters for the sake of a litde exercise. But since this is Cape Breton Island, the scene takes on a positively surreal quality. Here, people have one of the shortest life expectancies of any major health region

in the country—76.1 years, on average, compared with 78.4 nationally. If those two-plus years don’t seem all that significant, consider the quality-of-life factor. According to data published for the first time this year by Statistics Canada, someone born now in Cape Breton can generally count on living to just over 60 years before suffering some kind of disability, a figure disturbingly below the national average of 67.1 years. And there’s more. Among

Canadians now 65, Cape Breton reports the shortest life expectancy of the 54 major Canadian health regions—16.7 years—compared with 19.6 years in the nation-leading region, around Kelowna, B.C. What’s worse, only 8.4 of those 16.7 years will be disability free—again, the worst estimation for any major region. The Polar Bear club is bucking the odds.

Why is it so difficult to grow old in this close-knit place that exerts such a magnetic pull for anyone born here? There’s no single answer, says Dr. Robert Strang, one of Nova Scotia’s medical officers of health. “It’s no stretch to say that every health factor that could affect the citizens of Cape Breton does so in a negative way,” he adds. Just living here seems to come at a price. Life in the coal mines and steel mills, which have traditionally provided most of the jobs in the hardscrabble region, has never been a picnic. Cape Bretoners suffer high levels of chronic work-related diseases such as arthritis, silicosis and other respiratory ailments. Statistics Canada figures also show they have an above-average chance of suffering a debilitating injury, another sign of just how hard it is to make a living at the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. “When you spend your life in the mines, retirement isn’t like it is in the television ads,” says Steve Drake Sr., a 67-yearold Cape Bretoner from New Waterford who spent 38 years in the collieries and now takes 100 pills a week for his diabetes, arthritis and heart problems.

The miners and steelworkers aren’t the only ones suffering. Cape Breton’s smokestacks have left another legacy: a two-kilometre-long stretch of contaminated water and sludge within Sydney city limits, which some critics call North America’s worst toxic-waste site. The average person on the street in Cape Breton has no doubt that the Sydney tar ponds account for a cancer rate 20 per cent higher than the provincial average, which is already the highest in Canada. “They try to tell us there’s no connection,” says Eric Brophy, an ex-serviceman living near the tar ponds who has lost his wife, father and numerous friends to cancer or respiratory disease. “All I know is we’re getting tired of going to funerals around here.”

Scientists aren’t certain the tar ponds are killing anyone. But Health Canada and the Nova Scotia Cancer Registry have a

two-year study under way to determine whether there is a direct link between Sydney’s contaminated air, water and soil and its high cancer rates. All the same, nobody thinks all of Cape Breton’s health problems can be traced to the toxic goo. Dr. Andrew Lynk, a pediatrician at Sydney’s Cape Breton Regional Hospital, points to another villain: “Cape Bretoners simply smoke way too much.”

Latest figures show that 33 per cent of

Cape Bretoners over the age of 15 light up, the highest rate in Nova Scotia, Canada’s most tobacco-addicted province. Experts say islanders’ unwillingness to butt out contributes to elevated rates of a host of ailments, including lung cancer, coronary and heart disease, and bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and other respiratory problems. Unless trends change, Lynk predicts, 5,300 Cape Bretoners now under the age of 15—or a third of that group—will become regular smokers, and 1,300 will die from their addiction in middle age.

Smoking is one big problem, but experts also say that Nova Scotians, as a whole, eat too much fat and get too litde exercise. No surprise, then, that its citizens have the highest rate of high blood pressure in Canada and are also among the most obese. Consider Rod MacArthur, a popular former county councillor in Sydney who quit smoking and drinking more than a decade ago. By then, he was more than 30 lb. overweight and suffered from high cholesterol. With two artificial knees after 32 years working as a railwayman for Sydney Steel Corp., MacArthur found it hard to hit the stair climber. Last March, just weeks after turning 65, he picked up a shovel to clear the walk in front of his home. The next morning, he was in the emergency department at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, struggling for his life after a heart attack. “Before then,” he says, “I thought of myself as a relatively healthy man.”

Now, having dropped the excess weight through a fat-free diet and daily walks, MacArthur is the very model of healthy living. But experts say it’s going to take a lot more than willpower to get the rest of Cape Breton healthy. That’s because the main factors underlying the island’s huge smoking, dietary and lifestyle problems are beyond any one individual’s control, says David Rippey, the newly appointed director of population health for the Nova Scotia department of health. “Income and social status,” he says, “are the single most important determinants of health.” And Cape Breton, where the normal paycheque is 28 per cent below the national average, is no one’s idea of the land of milk and honey.

A perpetually depressed economy means people wouldn’t have the money to join the local Nubody’s gym, even if there was one. The population base is swiftly aging as the young move away. What’s more, on Cape Breton, where just 55.5 per cent of adults have completed high school—versus 67 per cent across Canada—many people simply don’t have the knowledge to make correct diet and lifestyle choices.

“Young people are starting to get the message,” says Michelle Killam, 35, a Sydney secretary who runs three times a week. Count Justin MacDonald among that number. A 17-year-old Sydney high-

school student, he’s a committed nonsmoker. He also plays basketball, football and hockey—and he insists his healthy lifestyle is not a rarity among his peers, no matter what the stats show. MacDonald’s motivation is simple. “I look at my parents’ generation and a lot of them are in lousy shape,” he says. “I want things to be different for me.”

The province is trying to help. It announced a $1-million antismoking program this month that will ban lighting up in public places and increase antismoking education for adults and in the schools. The Cape Breton Healthcare Complex— which includes Sydney’s Cape Breton Regional Hospital and smaller facilities on the island—is taking steps, too. Among other things, it has launched a new program to help patients at risk of heart disease before they suffer the big one. “We fully recognize there’s no short-term fix,” says hospital CEO John Malcom. “It’s a long-term batde.”

Nobody is throwing in the towel just yet. Proof can be found in a visit to the New Waterford Pensioners Hall any Monday or Wednesday at noon as a few dozen women in their 60s, 70s and 80s work out to a pulsing beat. “Life’s too short to spend it sitting around in front of the television,” says retired teacher Jean MacDonald, 65, during a break. Then she’s back on the floor, stepping lively to Play that Funky Music, White Boy. It’s an encouraging sight in a region where getting old, and staying healthy, is harder than in most. ED