Poverty and longevity

It’s hardly surprising that Americans who are prosperous and better educated tend to live longer than those who aren’t.

Being poor, unemployed and undereducated brings a lot of additional stress, a worse diet, more exposure to violence, less access to health care and less knowledge of how to take care of your body and avoid life-shortening illnesses. Plus poverty is associated with a high infant mortality rate, which also depresses average life expectancy rates.

But what’s so illustrative about an Associated Press analysis of life expectancy in this country is how these variances can be pinpointed down to the neighborhood in which you are born.

The AP analyzed life expectancy and demographic data for nearly the entire country. It crunched the numbers on almost 66,000 census tracts — population blocks of roughly 4,000 people — and found a nearly 40-year variance between the highest (in North Carolina) and lowest (in Oklahoma) census tracts.

Although these two specific extremes are more than 1,000 miles apart, dramatic disparities can show up within a fraction of that distance. In New York City, for example, one neighborhood has a life expectancy of just 59 years, almost 20 years less than the national average. Drive six miles, though, and the life expectancy jumps to 94, 15 years more than the national average.

It would be great if you could just pick up and move and immediately change your life expectancy prospects. But it doesn’t work that way. Where you are born — that is, the background of your parents, their income and education level, the environment around you — often determines what kind of education you get, what kind of job you get, what kind of diet you have, what kind of bad habits you develop.

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that Mississippi, chronically one of the poorest states in the nation, also has the nation’s shortest life expectancy on average at 74.9 years. In other words, if you are born in Mississippi, the numbers say to expect to live about four years less than everyone else.

That comparison just adds another to a long list of reasons why Mississippi needs to focus on raising the education and income levels of its people. It will save them from an early death.


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