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Older adults in Detroit area dying at higher rate than other older Michiganders, study finds


Detroit area residents who are older than 50 tend to die earlier compared to people older than 50 in other parts of the state.

That’s according to a studyfrom the Detroit Area Agency on Aging and researchers at Wayne State University.


The researchers analyzed data from Michigan’s health department over a 19-year period, from 1999 to 2017, and focused on mortality among older adults in the communities served by DAAA: Detroit, Hamtramck, Harper Woods, Highland Park, and the Grosse Pointes.


They found that the death rate for people between 50 and 59 years old in those cities was 122% higher than among those in the same age group living in other parts of Michigan. For those between 60 and 74, the rate was 48% higher. 


Wayne State’s Dr. Herbert Smitherman, who led the research, says the pandemic exposes the severe health challenges faced by Detroiters over age 50, more than three quarters of whom are Black.


“The sheer pace (at) which African Americans are dying has really transformed this public health crisis into a lesson of racial and class inequality,” he says. 


He says 89% of Detroit's older adults have a chronic illness that puts them at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, such as hypertension or diabetes. 39% have three or more chronic illnesses. 


President and CEO of DAAA Ronald Taylor says his organization sends instructors to Detroit neighborhoods and senior centers to teach residents about how to prevent these illnesses and take good care of people who have them. 


He says they’d like to work with school districts and housing authorities to improve health education for people of all ages in Detroit, but that they need more state and federal dollars to do so.


“We have to really do more to build the bridges and talk about how our issues overlap with one another’s,” says Taylor.


The study recommends that policymakers find ways to fund home-based care and improve access to basic primary care, which could result in fewer trips to the hospital.


But Smitherman believes the study shows the need for deeper health care overhaul in Detroit and beyond.


“We need to become innovative,” he says. “People say, ‘Well, it’s going to cost a lot more money.’ Not necessarily. It may need retooling and being creative about the current resources and how we spend them, knocking down some of those silos where you have mental health services, social services primary care services, housing services, transportation services, educational services — all working together. 


“Imagine the efficiencies you can get,” he says. 

Will Callan, a reporter for Michigan Radio, hails from the Bay Area, where he lived in Oakland and San Francisco and reported for local newspapers and magazines. He enjoys a long swim in chilly water (preferably followed by a sauna) and getting to know new cities. That's one reason he's excited to be in Ann Arbor, which he can already tell has just the right combo of urban grit and natural beauty to make him feel at home.