L.A.'s Westside Mystery: Higher Cancer Rates in One Zip Code, Longer Lives in Another
In THR's annual Doctors Issue, two programs — one conducted by USC, the other by best-selling author Dan Buettner — have revealed odd stats. While cancer rates are up in places like Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades, the Beach cities (Hermosa, Manhattan, Redondo) are working toward longer-than-average life spans.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
THE WEST SIDE'S 'AFFLUENZA' AND ITS CANCER ANOMALIES
When it comes to cancer, Los Angeles has been pretty lucky: California's cancer rate ranks as the eighth-lowest in the country, and L.A.'s rate is even lower than the state average. But in 2003, a series of Beverly Hills High School lawsuits in which alumni sued energy companies, claiming that oil-well toxins near the campus caused Hodgkin's lymphoma, drew the attention of USC's L.A. Cancer Surveillance Program. The cases were dismissed as the CSP found that social class factors, not environmental ones, contribute more to the correlation between above-average incidence rates of Hodgkin's disease and higher-income neighborhoods. Call it a kind of affluenza: Breast cancer rates also are higher in Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades and Palos Verdes, where women are bearing children later (and more likely to undergo hormone replacement therapy). "Reproductive history is an important determinant of breast cancer," says USC pathologist Dr. Thomas Mack, author of Cancers in the Urban Environment: Patterns of Malignant Disease in Los Angeles County and Its Neighborhoods, adding that uterine and ovarian cancer also disproportionately hit upper-class women. So does a type of lung cancer concentrated in the upper west regions such as Malibu, hypothesized to be linked to filter cigarettes. And although L.A.'s skin cancer rate is lower than the U.S. average, the most affected demographic coincides with the wealthier (and fairer-skinned) coastal populations from Santa Monica to Malibu. "Melanoma is the cancer most closely tied to social class," says Dr. Mack. One positive note: Though wealthier areas show higher incidences of thyroid and prostate cancer, Mack notes that has more to do with better access to screenings, which leads to more detection.
THE BEACH CITIES' PUSH FOR LONGEVITY
Living by the beach conjures images of a healthy lifestyle, but for many residents of L.A.'s Beach Cities (Hermosa, Manhattan, Redondo), the reality was anything but. The 405 commute contributed to a sedentary community with stress and anxiety levels resembling those of Detroit or post-Katrina New Orleans, according to a 2011 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. That survey was commissioned after the Beach Cities beat out 55 applicants to become the country's second Blue Zones Project, an initiative sparked by Dan Buettner's 2004 best-seller The Blue Zones, which unlocked the principles behind communities with especially long lifespans, from Okinawa, Japan, to Loma Linda, Calif.
Instead of exhorting individuals to transform their habits, the Blue Zones Project focuses on implementing change at an environmental and policy level. "It's very hard and expensive to get people's individual attention," Buettner tells THR. "It's a much better return if you can shape cities to invite physical activity instead of repelling it." The Beach Cities started by creating a "walking school bus" system that now includes 37 chaperoned walking routes to 14 of its elementary schools. Today, "Blue Zone-approved" decals pledging healthy menu options adorn almost a third of the restaurants and grocery stores across the three cities, and Manhattan Beach is joining its two neighbors in making every new road pedestrian- and bike-friendly, the final step toward a coveted Blue Zones certification. The community already has seen obesity rates drop 14 percent, smoking fall 30 percent and area-wide physical activity levels rise by 30 percent. Says project director Lauren Nakano of the Beach Cities Health District, which funds and operates the initiative: "This could become a movement in the country and really shift the way we impact metrics around health and well-being.
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