The age at which you'll die at least partially hinges on where you live — right down to the county, according to new research published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday. A study analyzing death reports from every United States county between 1980 and 2014 found that there was a 20-year gap in life expectancy between some United States counties by the end of their data collection, and the disparity is growing.
The researchers mapped life expectancy by county, using a color scale from red (low expectancy) to blue (high expectancy). Some counties in South and North Dakota, mostly those that have Native American reservations, had the lowest life expectancy, according to the study. People who lived in these counties in 2014 were expected to live for about 66 years.
Counties in central Colorado, on the other hand, boasted the highest life expectancies. People who lived there were likely to live for about 87 years. Overall, the average American in 2014 could expect to see their 79th birthday.
It's no huge surprise that rural, poorer areas had the lowest life expectancies and richer, more metropolitan areas the highest. But, still, "to have a gap of 20 years in a country as wealthy as ours is absurd," Ellen Meara, a health economist at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, told CNN.
The researchers weren't able to nail down a solid explanation as to why there's such a big gap between counties, but are confident in saying that it's a combination of "socioeconomic and race/ethnicity factors, behavioral and metabolic risk factors, and health care factors," according to the study.
They claim that these factors in combination explain only 74% of the variation in life expectancy between counties. While we're unclear on what the other 26% could be (maybe the actual environment), it's not exactly a surprise that how much money you make and the color of your skin make a big difference.
It's been well documented that the oppression people of color face can lead to poorer mental and physical health than white people who don't have to deal with daily microaggressions based on race. Previous research has also shown that poor people are likely to die sooner than their richer counterparts, likely because many are uninsured and/or can't afford to go to the doctor. And these identities often intersect.
What is truly concerning in this study is that the gap between counties, which is essentially a gap between the rich and the poor, is growing. Access to quality health care explained 27% of the disparity, according to the study.
If the American Health Care Act passes, millions more Americans will likely lose their access to health insurance and will no longer be able to pay for quality health care. While the researchers say that their findings "demand action" to start closing the gap, current discussion around health care indicates that government won't likely make the necessary changes.
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