Like many men in the Rogue Valley, Ashland barber Shady Challman "got it" a long time ago about health and fitness. Thanks in part to long morning bike rides and afternoon workouts, the lean and healthy 62-year-old is among the trendsetters who are creating a remarkable statistic — men in Jackson County adding years to their lives almost twice as fast as women.

Like many men in the Rogue Valley, Ashland barber Shady Challman "got it" a long time ago about health and fitness. Thanks in part to long morning bike rides and afternoon workouts, the lean and healthy 62-year-old is among the trendsetters who are creating a remarkable statistic — men in Jackson County adding years to their lives almost twice as fast as women.

Experts can only guess at the reasons — better health care, more workouts, more nutritious foods — but life spans in Jackson County have been getting steadily longer, with men improving their mortality rates about twice as fast as women.

"I realized at 31, when my first child was born, that I had to quit partying," says Challman. "I wanted to be here for my kids. I couldn't live the same old lifestyle."

The good news for Jackson County residents is that men and women live longer than the average for the nation and longer than in most other counties in the state. Nationally and locally, women are still living about five years longer than men — but what's puzzling health authorities is that the guys are catching up, adding two years to their lives each decade, while women are adding only one year.

"I feel obesity is behind it, the lagging behind for women — and obesity is what causes high blood pressure, cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, increased cancer risk," said Dr. Robin Miller of Medford. "Women used to get to the doctor faster, but that's not the case now. It could be that women are not taking care of themselves as much as they used to."

A raft of data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation tracked longevity in each county of the nation, comparing 10-year intervals for the last three decades.

It showed the average life span for women in the U.S. at 80.8 years, compared with 79.6 years in 1997 and 79.3 in 1987. Nationally for men, the average life is 75.6 years, compared with 73.7 in 1997 and 71.3 in 1987.

For Jackson County, women live to 81.5 years on average, compared with 80.2 in 1997 and 79.7 in 1987. Men here have lives averaging 76.2, compared with 74.4 in 1997 and 72.6 in 1987.

The statistics are almost the same for Oregon as a whole, but a map shows counties containing Portland, Eugene-Springfield, Medford-Ashland and Bend with consistently longer lives than more rural counties. That's likely because of access to quality health care, good food, lifestyle choices and health awareness, say local authorities.

While Jackson County average life spans were 76.2 and 81.5 years respectively, Josephine County recorded 73.9 and 80.3 years; Klamath County, 74.4 and 78.7 years; Douglas, 74.1 and 80.7; and Curry, 74.8 and 80.2.

"We have greater access to health care here in Jackson County relative to other places, except Portland and Eugene," says Miller, "and you just look at the BMI (Body Mass Index) in rural areas, like Coos County, theirs is one of the highest. Obesity is at the root of all this and 75 percent of all illness is related to lifestyle choices — diet, exercise and smoking."

Jackson County Public Health Manager Belle Shepherd said longer lives are coming from better prevention and treatment, as well as the "huge impact" of reduced smoking on a raft of diseases.

Exercise matters, and men are going to workouts and fitness classes in higher numbers than in the past, says Ashland YMCA Fitness Director Chip Layton, with about 40 percent of customers being men, a steady increase over the years. And the Y is giving a lot more classes aimed at older people.

Mark Phelps, a physician with La Clinica Health Center, credits quality health care and preventative measures with the steady increase in life span but says the lagging mortality scores of women could be linked to the fact that they have 58 percent of the cases of Type 2 diabetes, which drives an array of other maladies, starting with coronary illness, hypertension and stroke.

"I've found a one-for-one link in rates of obesity and diabetes," says Phelps. "It's preventable and saves lives if treated early," but because it opens the door for other diseases, it's "very tricky" once it takes root.

A loger life is not necessarily a better life. Nutritional therapy practitioner Jack Leishman of Ashland notes that technology is extending life for some: "We live longer because of technology but I don't know if we're living better. Are these extra years happening in sickness and in hospitals?"

Peg Crowley, executive director of the Community Health Centers, also cautions against celebration of longer lives, noting, "you may be alive but that doesn't mean you are mobile and free of health issues."

"Quantity without quality doesn't mean much," she added, noting that large numbers of people go without jobs and quality, affordable health care.

Across the country, the study of counties showed a range of life expectancy from 65.9 to 81.1 years for men and 73.5 to 86.0 years for women, depending on region, with the South and Appalachia on the low end and the coasts and upper Midwest on the high end.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.