Researchers have found wide disparities in the life spans of Americans depending on where they live, and those gaps are widening. Some affluent counties have average life spans as long as 87 years, while others’ are as short as 67.
The differences are comparable to gaps between prosperous nations and impoverished parts of the developing world, according to the researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
“What we found is that the gap is enormous,” Christopher Murray, who heads the institute, told National Public Radio. The analysis, published this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found a gap of 20.1 years between counties with the longest and shortest typical life spans.
Counties with the longest life expectancy tend to be clustered in places where residents are well educated and have high incomes — such as Marin County, Calif., and Summit County, Colo. Longevity has increased significantly in Alaska and communities on the East and West coasts.
Those with shortest life spans tend to be in poor places with less educated populations, notably parts of the lower Mississippi River Valley, Kentucky and West Virginia and across much of the South. The shortest life spans were found in parts of the Dakotas.
Between 1980 and 1984, the gap among counties increased by two years, the researchers found, and is “large and growing.” Geographic inequality in the risk of death decreased among children and adolescents, they said, but increased among older adults.
To reduce the large and growing gap, the researchers recommended policies that target poverty as well as “behavioral and metabolic risk factors,” meaning unhealthy habits, such as smoking tobacco, bad diets and obesity.