Why people in this Triangle census tract live longer than anywhere else in the U.S.

People living in one part of Chatham County lead the nation in life expectancy.

Chatham County ranks fourth in North Carolina in overall life expectancy. Chatham (81.2) trails neighboring Orange (82.0), which tops the Tar Heel state, and Wake (81.6), which comes in third. Watauga County in the mountains is second in the state with an average life expectancy of 81.7 years. Durham County is seventh at 80 years.

But in the county’s northeast corner, people are squeezing out a few more years than average, researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics found. After examining death records from across the nation, researchers determined the average life expectancy for people living in northeast Chatham was between 90 and 104 years. Their model, because it was based on statistical analysis, only was able to return a life expectancy range.

Dennis Streets, executive director of the Chatham County Council on Aging, learned of the distinction after colleagues shared it from Governing magazine. The magazine focuses on public-sector innovation for state and local government and education officials.

“We looked at it with a sense of some pride, but at the same time, knowing we have a lot to do because there is some divide and disparity among folks, not just in Chatham, but in all communities,” Streets said. “We are among the highest in the difference in life expectancy between whites and African Americans, for example.”

Life expectancy for whites in Chatham County is 82.3 years, while it is 77.9 for African Americans.

Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put U.S. overall life expectancy for 2017 at 78.6 years, a slight decrease from 2015 because of increased suicides and overdose deaths from the opioid epidemic.

The researchers compared life expectancies in census tracts across the country. The census tract in Chatham with the highest expectancies contains the large retirement communities of Fearrington Village and The Preserve at Jordan Lake.

Census tracts, which provide uniform geographic units for data presentation, allow statistical comparisons to be made from census to census. They generally have between 1,200 and 8,000 people, with an optimum size of 4,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Why Chatham?

Chatham’s population is growing, especially among retirees.

“What we’re seeing is that Chatham has really emerged as a retiree destination, partly because of the proximity to the Triangle area,” said UNC-Chapel Hill demographics expert Rebecca Tippett.

“People can have their cake and eat it, too,” she said. “There are so many natural amenities, like Jordan Lake, while being near the cultural and the broader resources that come with living near one of the largest metropolitan areas in the state.

The county’s proximity to hospitals at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University make it attractive.

The cost of living also is less than in neighboring Wake, Orange and Durham, which have urban centers.

“It’s less about Chatham County creating these life expectancies as much as the individuals moving to Chatham County are bringing with them characteristics associated with very high life expectancy,” Tippett said.

Chatham is still largely rural. At about 710 square miles, it is one of the geographically largest counties in the state. But its population of about 71,000 people is spread out.

Its two largest towns — Siler City and Pittsboro — offer some services to the aging population through the Council on Aging, which has senior centers in both towns. They may not be as swanky as clubhouses in Fearrington or The Preserve, but they do bring people together for social activities.

“If you look at the areas of the county where households are economically stronger and compare those with other areas of the county, there is still work to be done,” Streets said.

Checking in on the homebound

Larry Ross sees the aging population in Chatham County.

Every Monday Ross delivers hot lunches to senior citizens as a Meals-on-Wheels volunteer. He shares a route with other drivers who drop off food to seniors who often live alone and no longer cook. It takes him about an hour to visit eight to 10 people. There are 12 routes in Chatham, four that originate in Pittsboro and eight that start in Siler City.

Mary Reaves is one of Ross’s stops. He’s been delivering meals to her about three years.

Reaves, who is 84 and has lived in Chatham County all her life, gets around in a wheelchair.

“Meals on Wheels is the best thing that ever happened in Chatham County for seniors,” she said.

But Ross and his colleagues also keep an eye on their seniors. They look for subtle changes that may point to declining health. The aim is to keep the seniors in their homes as long as they can safely take care of themselves, Ross said.

“We want them to remain as independent as they can be,” he said. “And that’s what they want. Whenever you ask them how they’re doing, it’s always the same, ‘I’m fine.’”

The volunteers make their runs Monday-Friday. They also follow the schedule set by the school system. If school is out or delayed because of weather, Meals on Wheels doesn’t operate in Chatham.

When the snow storm hit in early December, the food deliveries weren’t made. But the volunteers still did their check-ins with a phone call.

“So many of the people live on the back roads and they’re not going to be cleared,” Ross said. “It’s as much a safety issue for the volunteers as it is for the people we serve. We still check on them to make sure they’re all right.”

Looking to the future

Chatham County must get younger if it is going to take care of its older population, County Commissioner Diana Hales said.

An aging population presents challenges to local governments and health-care systems as that population rises.

The 2017 estimated median age for Chatham County residents was 47, up from 38.7 in 2007 and above the state average. As of 2017, the percentage of residents 65 and older was nearly 24 percent, while those age 19 and younger wereabout 22 percent of the population, according to state demographic data.

To change that course, Hales said the county needs to attract younger workers who earn more and pay more than property taxes. Counties get most of their money from property taxes, but they also get a share of sales taxes collected by the state. More people and businesses would give the county more money to pay for services, including those for its aging population.

Hales sees Chatham Park and other new developments as a magnet that could accomplish that goal.

Chatham Park is a megadevelopment that will turn Pittsboro from a small town of about 5,000 residents to a city of about 60,000 people during the next 30 years. Developers want to build more than 20,000 homes and the types of businesses and entertainment destinations for residents who want a “live, work, play” community.

“The dilemma is to address the needs of an aging population and at the same time create a vibrant economy in Chatham County that brings in the businesses that hire millenials,” Hales said. “Are millenials looking for a rural or urban experience? From the research I hear, it’s the urban experience where there is activity versus a rural area where you don’t have nightlife. That’s a concern. Chatham Park could very well be a major attraction.”