Commission to Build a Healthier America’s City Maps Show Dramatic Differences in Life Expectancy

Jul 3, 2013, 1:59 PM

Just a few metro stops can mean the difference between an extra five to ten years added to your lifespan. Using new city maps, the Commission to Build a Healthier America, which reconvened recently after a four year hiatus, is illustrating the dramatic disparity between the life expectancies of communities mere miles away from each other. Where we live, learn, work and play can have a greater impact on our health than we realize.

For too many people, making healthy choices can be difficult because the barriers in their communities are too high—poor access to affordable healthy foods and limited opportunities for exercise, for example. The focus for the Commission’s 2013 deliberations will be on how to increase opportunities for low-income populations to make healthier choices.  

The two maps of the Washington, D.C. area and New Orleans help to quantify the differences between living in certain parts of the region versus others.

file Life expectancies in the Washington, D.C. area

Living in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax and Arlington Counties instead of the nearby District of Columbia, a distance of no more than 14 miles, can mean about six or seven more years in life expectancy. The same disparity exists between babies born at the end of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (known as the Metro) Red Line in Montgomery County—ranked second out of 24 counties in the County Health Rankings, metrics developed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin to show the health of different counties—and those born and living at the end of the Metro’s Blue Line in Prince George’s County, which ranked 17th in the County Health Rankings.

file Life expectancies in the New Orleans, La. area

The difference between life expectancies in the French Quarter of New Orleans and the Lower Garden District, only a few miles apart, can be as high as 25 years. Orleans County, which both neighborhoods fall under, ranked 48th out of 64 total counties in the state of Louisiana. This is due to high rates of adult smoking, obesity and excessive drinking, as well as socio-economic factors such as high numbers of children living in poverty and the violent crime rate. What allows for the life expectancy of children born in the Lower Garden district to be higher than those in the French Quarter are the interventions made early in life, such as early childhood education, which are made possible because the more affluent communities can devote resources to public health initiatives.

The reasons behind these large disparities are many, including behavioral factors such as smoking all the way to environmental factors such as the safety of drinking water. But there are preventative actions that can be taken to help find a healthier balance for both city and suburban dwellers. The key is identifying actions that should be taken now to improve health outside of the doctor’s office, such as improving early childhood education, another one of the Commission’s new areas of focus in 2013.

Further public health recommendations from the Commission on how to increase the availability of healthy options for everyone, no matter what neighborhood they live in, are scheduled to be released this fall.

>> Read more on the Commission to Build a Healthier America.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.