Wake County

Study: Life expectancy varies by ZIP code in the Triangle

A map prepared by Virginia Commonwealth University shows calculated life expectancies for various ZIP codes in the Triangle. The results are intended to start conversations about how to address differences in public health, said Derek Chapman, a researcher at VCU who helped produce the maps.
A map prepared by Virginia Commonwealth University shows calculated life expectancies for various ZIP codes in the Triangle. The results are intended to start conversations about how to address differences in public health, said Derek Chapman, a researcher at VCU who helped produce the maps. Courtesy of VCU

The average life expectancy for people in the Triangle can vary by as much as 12 years depending on where they live, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study, conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and displayed in maps and tables on the university’s website - where you can examine your ZIP code, is the latest addition to the body of evidence that where you live influences your health.

Using U.S. Census data and state death records, the researchers calculated that babies born today in ZIP code 27617, which includes the Brier Creek area of Raleigh, can be expected to live to 88, while babies born in 27610, including Southeast Raleigh, are expected to live to only 76. According to Zillow.com, the median home value in the Brier Creek ZIP code is $252,600, while in the Southeast Raleigh ZIP code that value is $129,400.

Other studies have found relatively poor health and shorter lifespans in communities of lower income. A difference in life expectancy of only a few years can signal a big discrepancy in public health, said Jim Marks of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study.

Overall, people in the U.S. are living longer. About every five years, the average life expectancy is bumped up another year, said Marks. That means that when some segments of the population aren’t experiencing those same gains, they are falling behind everyone else.

“So a difference of 5 years in life expectancy is like people at the lower end are 25 years behind” the progress being made in the rest of the country, Marks said.

Longevity increased across the board in the United States between 1963 and the early 1980s, but then stagnated or dropped in disadvantaged counties, according to a 2008 study published by researchers at Harvard University. That means the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor widened over the last two decades of the 20th century, they wrote.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has funded the production of 12 life expectancy maps and plans to release 14 more this year. The Washington, D.C., area map shows lifespan differences of six or seven years between just a few subway stops. In California, longevity can drop from 87 to 78 between two freeway exits.

The researchers use life expectancy as a broad indicator of health and well-being; they didn’t parse the death certificate data by gender, occupation, cause of death, or other parameters that could influence longevity.

That’s because the results are intended to start conversations about how to address differences in public health, said Derek Chapman, a researcher at VCU who helped produce the maps.

The reasons behind these disparities are complex, Chapman said, and go beyond access to health care and personal choice.

For example, residents of neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food and few safe places to walk, exercise, and play may be more susceptible to obesity, he said.

Other explanations the team offers are isolation from good schools and jobs, unsafe housing and pollution.

Although these discrepancies are well-known scientifically, the message has yet to be fully communicated to policy makers and community leaders, Chapman said.

“Our goal really is just to help local officials, residents, and others understand that there’s more to health than healthcare,” he said. “We’re really advocating that health be part of the discussion when talking about” public policy.

“In other words, a short term cut in one area might cost more in the long term in terms of poor health outcomes if those health implications aren’t considered.”

Some of the starkest differences in life expectancy can be found in Baltimore, Md. According to data compiled by the Justice Policy Institute and Prison Policy Initiative, the life expectancy for babies born in the wealthier Roland Park neighborhood is 82, but for those born in a poorer neighborhood, Seton Hill, it’s only 65.

The team chose to include the Triangle in its study partly because they felt the community “was ready to receive and act upon this message,” Chapman said.

In 2014, the Partnership for a Healthy Durham won the Culture of Health prize, a $25,000 award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation meant to honor “outstanding communities that are transforming in ways that help to put better health within everyone’s reach.”

Rimler: 919-829-4526

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