Your address doesn’t just tell where you live. It may also predict how long you’ll live.
Consider this: It’s only about a 20-minute drive from the leafy lanes of Haddonfield to the struggling streets of Camden, but they may as well be light years apart.
The average life expectancy in Haddonfield is 87.5 years. In one pocket of Camden, it’s 20 years less.
If you live in Birmingham, Chester County, where the median income is over $166,000, chances are good you’ll make it to 89 at least. But if you hail from Delaware County’s Chester Township, with a median income of about $40,000, your life expectancy drops to 67.
And in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden section, where 97 percent of adults completed high school, you’ll probably live to be 87 years old or more. But in West Philadelphia’s Mantua, where one-third of the population didn’t graduate from secondary school, your life expectancy is just 66 years.
These jolting differences in health outcomes are part of an analysis published Tuesday by the Associated Press of data from the National Center for Health Statistics. NCHS, working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, created the United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Project, which includes life-expectancy-at-birth estimates for nearly 66,000 census tracts nationwide.
These life-expectancy numbers are a stunning shorthand for a host of other demographic factors — inadequate education, insufficient income, area unemployment levels, community or family violence, lack of health insurance, and race. For those who study poverty or who advocate for the poor, data like these speak volumes about many more variables than how many years make up an individual’s life or where they lived.
“Presenting data like this is very informative because it presents in a very stark way how economic inequality and inequality of opportunity can manifest itself in huge differences in life expectancy,” said James Ziliak, an economist and director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky.
This data “should come as no surprise because of the history of racism and discrimination in this country,” said Mariana Chilton, a professor at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities.
Lower-income Americans — and many are people of color — can find themselves virtually imprisoned in substandard housing and communities with failing schools, in surroundings rife with governmental neglect. All that, Chilton said, can have profound effects on health.
“It creates an enormous amount of stress and fear that gets into your nervous system, which then affects your organs and affects your brain — your cognitive, social, and emotional development,” she said.
Lack of access to decent nutrition is another clear detriment to health. Carrie Kitchen-Santiago, director of the Cathedral Kitchen in Camden, sees that in her agency’s feeding and opportunities programs. But other hazards to healthy futures are less obvious.
“I hear about the traumatic occurrences they’ve experienced in their lives before they got here because they’re living in a neighborhood that’s often in crisis,” Kitchen-Santiago said.
Within one census tract, a $10,000 increase in median income translated into a half-year more of life. A 10-percentage-point increase in unemployment meant a 1½-year loss of life, while the same percentage-point increase in those who didn’t graduate from high school tabulated as a 10-month loss of lifespan. Decreased life expectancy also was linked to fewer community members being insured, or to more black residents within a given census tract.
Nationally, the highest life expectancy was 97.5 years in a northeastern part of Chatham County, N.C., west of Raleigh, while the lowest was about 56 years in Oklahoma’s central Adair County.
Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put U.S. overall life expectancy for 2017 at 78.6 years, a slight decrease from 2015 because of increased suicides and overdose deaths from the opioid epidemic. But the new data from the AP analysis were developed from 2010 to 2015, before the opioid crisis took hold. For some of the communities hit hardest by the opioid crisis, the average life expectancy may be even lower than what has been tabulated.
In the Philadelphia region, many communities are in close proximity, but in terms of community amenities and intangibles, such as hope, those tracts are worlds apart.
Take, for example, census tract 2055.03 in Montgomery County’s Lower Merion Township. The average life expectancy is nearly 92 years. The median income is $103,000. Less than 2 percent of the adults have less than a high school education, only 3 percent aren’t insured, 4.8 percent are unemployed, and nearly 74 percent are white.
About five miles away is census tract 151.02 in North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion section. There, the median income is nearly $14,000, 16 percent of residents have no health insurance, 15 percent are unemployed, 27 percent have less than a high school education, and nearly 90 percent are black. The median life expectancy is a little over 64 years — nearly 28 years fewer than a community a 17-minute car ride away.
Sherita Mouzon of Frankford knows all too well the vast distance that separates communities near one another. Growing up in some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, she went to school hungry. She lived in places without heat or hot water. Mouzon, 42, endured domestic violence and abuse. When her daughter Joe-anna was younger, the child suffered from failure to thrive, a condition that left her underweight, caused in part by not having enough to eat. Mouzon struggled to get her daughter the food and care she needed.
Life still isn’t easy, but Mouzon now works as an advocate for the Witnesses to Hunger Program of Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities. Joe-anna, now 11, aspires to become a baker. As Mouzon strives to give her daughter a better life, she also encourages her to seek even more.
“I always let her know that education is key,” Mouzon said. “That it’s not where you’re from, but where you’re going.“