In certain regions of the U.S., life expectancy is actually decreasing, with some Americans dying younger than they were a generation ago.
That’s the chilling news from a new county-by-county look at Americans’ life expectancy, based on data collected from 2000 to 2007.
The study found that women’s life expectancy, in particular, has dropped or failed to rise in hundreds of counties, a setback not seen in the U.S. since the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, according to the researchers.
While life expectancy at birth for both American men and women has increased slightly — to 75.6 years for men and 80.8 for women — the study revealed wide geographic disparities in how long we live.
The lowest life expectancies are in counties in Appalachia, the deep South, and across northern Texas. In some cases, both men and women in these regions can expect to die more than a decade sooner than those in other areas.
The study was led by Christopher Murray, MD, of the University of Washington, and published in the online journal Population Health Metrics.
The researchers noted that despite the fact that the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on health, eight out of every 10 counties are not keeping pace in terms of health outcomes.
Compared to other developed nations, some U.S. counties have a life expectancy today that nations with the best health outcomes had in 1957.
Other highlights from the study:
*The worst places: Both men and women die the youngest in poor, mostly rural parts of the South and in struggling urban centers like Philadelphia and St. Louis. In Baltimore, men on average live only 66.7 years, according to the L.A. Times.
*Baby girls with shorter lives: In one-quarter of the country, girls born today may live shorter lives than their mothers.
*Stark geographic differences for women’s longevity: Life expectancy for a woman in Collier County, Fla., is 86 years. For a woman in Holmes County, Miss., it’s a decade sooner at 73.5 years old.
*Biggest losses for women: Life expectancy for women fell in more than 700 of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties between 1997 and 2007. The largest declines — by about two years — were in Madison County, Miss., near Jackson, and the adjacent Hughes and Okfuskee counties in eastern Oklahoma.
*Biggest gains for men: For men, the largest increases in life expectancy were metro areas near universities and job opportunities like Georgia’s Fulton County, near Atlanta, and New York City, Washington, D.C., and nearby Alexandria, Va.
*Bad news for Mississippi: It fared the worst among states. Of its 82 counties, 26 had life expectancies for men in 2007 that were roughly 66 to 69 years. That’s six to 10 years lower than the national average lifespan for men.
*Is obesity to blame? Murray and his team believe that high rates of obesity and smoking have more to do with lower life expectancies than poverty in some areas. Other experts think it’s tied to the availability of good health care.
In any case, don’t automatically blame income or race for these regional differences, says Murray. He told the Associated Press that he and his colleagues checked issues like poverty or racial makeup, and those factors didn’t explain all the disparities.
Relatively poor communities with large immigrant populations, like in southern California, still did better than average. Some rural parts of the nation also had high life expectancies.
“These are not wealthy communities,” Murray told the Washington Post, but their residents may benefit from a “cohesive community” that could improve health outcomes.
Whatever the reason, we need to fix our “culture of unhealthy habits,” as an online editorial in the Baltimore Sun put it. We need to “treat the problem like our lives depend on it, because they do.”
Photo credit: Monalyn Gracia/Corbis