Since the 1990s, researchers have been studying why some neighborhoods are healthy and others have higher levels of chronic health conditions such as cancer and heart disease, more accidental deaths and other mortality, and higher rates of depression and anxiety. Where you live can help to keep you and your family healthy, and therefore affect how long you live. For example, a neighborhood associated with environmental pollutants, a high crime rate, or one that simply lacks access to healthy food or good medical care, may cause or exacerbate existing health problems. More research on which neighborhoods are associated with longer lives, and which with shorter ones has been released by the Centers for Disease Control’s U.S. Small-area Life Expectancy and Estimates Project (USALEEP), published September 2018. Here are a few of the findings.
What Factors Influence Life Expectancy in Neighborhoods?
The CDC partnered with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to conduct the survey. The RWJF has identified common factors that influence health and life expectancy. They include access to:
- Healthy food
- Good schools
- Affordable housing
- Recreation and physical activity
- Employment opportunities
Access to all of these amenities may help people to live longer, happier lives, according to the RWJF. The Small-area Life Expectancy and Estimates Project (USALEEP) has added to health knowledge by helping to uncover the difference a few blocks can make between a long, healthy life and reduced life expectancy.
RWJF vice president Don Schwarz told Philadelphia NBC 10 that “The more local the data, the more useful they can be for pinpointing disparities and driving action.”
The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 81.2 years for women, 76.3 years for men, and overall, a combined average of 78.8 years. The survey covers about 89% of census tracts in the U.S. and is based on the National Vital Statistics system and other national population and residence data.
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How Do Neighborhoods Contribute to Life Expectancy?
Dr. Garth Graham, M.D., a cardiologist and president of the Aetna Foundation, told NBC News that “social determinants of health” present in neighborhoods can affect life expectancy as much, or even more than genetics and family history.
As one example, a Harvard School of Public Health study determined that women who lived in or near green spaces lived longer than those who lived in a neighborhood with no parks or open space. Dr. Graham said “the ability to safely walk and play outside” contributes to overall health, which includes a long, healthy lifespan.
A study published in the Journal of Public Health found that children who lived near fast food restaurants gained weight faster and had a greater risk of shortened lifespans than those who lived in neighborhoods with no fast food restaurants. The phenomenon of “healthy food deserts,” neighborhoods that lack markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables, has been well-documented. People who live in “food desert” neighborhoods have shorter lifespans than those living in neighborhoods with ample, easy access to healthy food. Neighborhoods with high crime rates experience direct reductions in lifespan due to criminal activity and stress-related illnesses.
Is the USALEEP Survey Completely Accurate and Does the Project Cover Every Neighborhood?
The USALEEP Survey is an indicator of potential health problems that are neighborhood-related, not a complete prediction of exactly how long every person in a neighborhood will live. It’s part of a growing body of geo-specific data that helps to tie health outcomes and challenges to neighborhoods and communities.
Not all neighborhoods are covered by the USALEEP Survey. According to CDC researchers, the survey was able to find statistically reliable life tables for 88.7% of the more than 65,600 census tracts in the U.S. Tracts with small population sizes (primarily under 5,000) and missing age-specific death counts weren’t able to be included. Some of the results also included estimates of death rates and life expectancy. Overall, the survey shows reliable, but not perfect information, and it can’t predict the life expectancy of any one individual.
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Can The Survey Be Used to Choose a Neighborhood or Recommend Improvements?
You can see where your neighborhood’s average life expectancy rates compared to your state or the U.S. as a whole by visiting RWJF’s searchable database and entering your address and zip code. The database doesn’t list which health-promoting factors your neighborhood possesses, including parks, good schools, or fresh and healthy food, so you’d have to guess. The features people value in their neighborhoods also include friendly neighbors, community spirit, and attractive, well-maintained homes, each of which also promotes health on both an individual and a community basis.
In a way, the USALEEP survey has put numbers to things that common sense tells us are important. Some of the neighborhoods with low life expectancies have high crime rates. Others have high infant mortality rates because of a lack of prenatal care and potential substance use disorders. Unhealthy environments contribute to high rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. For now, research into the connection between the neighborhood we live in and our life expectancy continues. No matter where our neighborhoods rank in the survey, we can seek to make them healthier and happier.