The oldest town in America reveals the secrets of living longer

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The Independent US

The people of Ashley, North Dakota, put their longevity down to good genes, clean air and willingness to take things slowly. That and having good neighbours.

Whatever the magical factors in this small city in the Great Plains they are certainly working. McIntosh County, of which Ashley is the seat, has a higher proportion of people aged 85 and over than anywhere else in America.

There are several theories about their longevity. One is that they are the descendants of hardy immigrants, another that they had healthy diets as children, free of junk food. Another theory says it is because the community is small and integrated and people have the time to look out for each other.

"My great grandfather walked miles across pastures to stake a claim here," Tony Bender, editor of the Ashley Tribune weekly newspaper told The New York Times. Richard Suzman, director of the behavioural and social research programme at the National Institute on Ageing in Washington, said education also contributed to people living longer. But the people of McIntosh County (total population 3,397) say that, of the 51 people who died last year, 33 left school at 15.

"There are lots of reasons," Mr Suzman said. "One theory is the hardy immigrant one. And many of them are descendants from northern Europeans who tend to have high life expectancy. Community and neighbourhood are also important. So is the level of positive integration, neighbourliness."

The people of McIntosh County have their own theories. Udom Tinsa, who grew up in Thailand but has been Ashley's main doctor for 26 years, said: "They're strong. They don't sit in an office. They live with nature. After working on their farms they go to help their children work."

Esther Hildebrand, a spring chicken at 78, said: "These kids these days will never amount to much because they don't want to work. Big gardens, big yards. We milked 18 cows."

Another reason for the high proportion of elderly people is that many of the younger ones have been forced to move elsewhere for work. During the 1990s, the population of McIntosh County fell by 624.