For the first time in our history, the United States is raising a generation of children who may live sicker and shorter lives than their parents. Reversing this trend will of course depend on healthy decisions by each of us. But not everyone in America has the same opportunities to make healthy choices.
How does our ZIP code affect our life expectancy and health?
While medical researchers have pored over the human genetic code for clues to well-being, social researchers have increasingly insisted that our ZIP codes tell a far more informative story. With support from the Robert Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a population-based analysis of life expectancy across United States counties found that geographic disparities in life expectancy in our nation are large and growing, and can be explained in large part by differences in race/ethnicity and socioeconomic factors such as income, education, and employment status.
To further illustrate how where we live can affect our health, RWJF has supported the development of maps which show how babies born just a few miles apart often have dramatic differences in life expectancy. Developed using publicly available vital statistics, these maps show tragic disparities across ZIP codes in U.S. cities and counties. For instance, in New Orleans, the average life expectancy for babies born to mothers in different neighborhoods can vary by as much as 25 years. Babies in Maryland's Montgomery County can expect to live six to seven years longer than babies born to mothers in Washington, D.C., just a few subway stops away.
Access to affordable, high-quality medical care is essential to good health. But where we live can have a greater impact than medical care on our prospects for long-term health. Indeed, our ZIP codes can determine everything from our access to healthy food, to the safety of our neighborhoods, to the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink—factors which have a huge influence on whether we get sick in the first place.
In a Culture of Health, everyone has the opportunity to live the healthiest life possible, regardless of our ZIP code. Browse the resources below to learn more about the many different types of factors which shape our health, and RWJF's efforts to help create healthier places to live, learn, work and play.