Kim Stitzel, M.S., R.D., Senior Vice President, Center for Health Metrics and Evaluation
It’s no secret that where you live can make an impact on how well you live, and how long.
Now we can drill down to understand how life expectancy varies neighborhood by neighborhood, thanks to an effort that calculates life expectancy at birth for nearly every U.S. census tract, an area of about 4,000 people with similar characteristics, like social and economic status. This is the first single measure of health produced at the census tract level nationwide using consistent methodology.
Researchers for the United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project calculated the life expectancy estimates based on the number and age of death of the residents in each census tract during the years 2010-2015. They used death certificate data collected by state vital statistics offices and population estimates from both the 2010 U.S. census and the 2011-2015 American Community Survey. These data were used to construct a life table, which presents a snapshot of the mortality profile of the populations at the census tract level (but not a prediction of how long any one person will live).
The value of life expectancy data
Such information helps paint a fuller picture and direct resources where they’re most needed. While existing ZIP code, city, or county-level data have provided similar information, they often don’t tell the whole story. That’s because neighborhoods right next to each other — in the same ZIP code, city or county — can provide drastically different opportunities for health and well-being.
As we begin to understand differences among population groups, we can examine the factors that might impact health and longevity. These may include opportunities for quality education, good jobs, safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, reliable public transportation and access to health care, social services, healthy food and child care. These factors may vary by neighborhood and limit the choices residents have. Armed with facts, we can better tackle barriers to health and opportunity.
Everyone has a role to play in helping make their community healthier. For example:
Policymakers can use the new life expectancy data to make decisions about public transportation and grocery stores, physical activity and healthy foods in schools, community safety, access to health care and more.
Public health or health care workers can use it to inform their community health assessments, helping them direct limited dollars to the areas of greatest need.
Community development officials can prioritize neighborhoods that need investment dollars for health clinics, schools, community centers and other projects that can help improve health.
Community members can use the data to examine life expectancy disparities, discuss root issues and spur their elected officials to take action. A few examples: better public transportation, increased access to healthy food, opportunities for physical activity like sidewalks and trails, more affordable housing and more education and job training opportunities for the neighborhood.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but local data fills in critical clues for communities interested in solving challenges. Improving health begins with a single conversation that leads to simple solutions, one community at a time. Let’s start talking!
USALEEP is a joint effort of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. To access life expectancy estimates for your neighborhood, visit https://rwjf.org/lifeexpectancy.