Researcher says location can reduce average life expectancy

According to a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, the average life expectancy of Richmond residents varies between 63 and 83 years of age, depending on which portion of the city a person resides.

Derek Chapman, associate director for research at the VCU Center for Society and Health, the nation’s largest center devoted solely to improving the health of all Americans, created 21 maps across the country to estimate life expectancies in different areas using U.S. Census population data.

“People have been shocked at the magnitude of health gaps — up to a 20 year difference in life expectancy in some areas for persons living just a few miles apart,” Chapman said.

Chapman said the maps have prompted conversation about health gaps in neighborhoods and the role all parts of society can have in diminishing the inequities.

These maps are meant to serve as a conversation starter to raise awareness that gaps in in health by neighborhood exist,” Chapman said. “The next step is for local policymakers and change agents to continue this dialogue by having a broad range of players at the table, including multiple government agencies.”

During the course of the data collection process, the researchers also worked with local health officials and key stakeholders in different communities to ensure the maps were accurate and locally relevant.

“A map is a compelling communications tool because people recognize the areas on the map and can and immediately see striking differences in health across small distances,” Chapman said.

According to Chapman, health differences between neighborhoods are rarely due to a single cause. Opportunities for education and jobs, safe and affordable housing, availability of nutritious food and places for physical activity, clean air, and access to health care, child care and social services all play a role, he said.

“When it comes to health, the choices we make depend on the choices available to us,” Chapman said. “Many urban and rural areas have experienced generations of isolation from opportunity. America cannot be healthy if we are leaving behind whole communities.”

James Marks, executive vice president of the country’s largest health-oriented philanthropy, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, agreed Chapman’s findings are indicative of a larger issue across the country.

“The maps highlighted what turned out to be very large differences in life expectancy,” Marks said. “So it’s a simple description of serious disparities or inequities in our society.”

Chapman said the maps did not just correlate lower life expectancy to lower income areas, however. In some cases, people with shorter lifespans lived next to some of the best hospitals.

“We see a whole range of life expectancy values across the areas we mapped. We see a gradient of health which shows that we all stand to gain from improved conditions for health, not just persons living in poverty,” Chapman said. “Neighborhood factors affect everyone in the community and interact with policies and individual behaviors to influence health.”


SaraRose Martin, Contributing Writer

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