By Rose Hoban

Born and raised in Raleigh? Then chances are that you’ll live longer than someone who was born and raised in Martin County, only 75 miles east.

That’s what data compiled by researchers with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found and put into startling new maps that show how being born in different parts of North Carolina could affect life expectancy.

“We wanted to start a conversation about how there’s more to health than just health care,” said Derek Chapman, a researcher from Virginia Commonwealth University who studies the societal influences on health. He compiled the data for the the maps.

“Life expectancy is influenced by where you live, not only by individual behaviors or access to medical care,” Chapman said. “There’s also factors in your own community and neighborhood, like education and housing and crime and the built environment. Something as simple as sidewalks can influence health in cites.”

Chapman used data from the state Department of Health and Human Services as well as the U.S. Census and crunched them together to find that someone who is born, raised and lives in Raleigh would live for 80 years, yet a similar person in Martin County would only live for 73 years.

A new map from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health shows differences in life expectancy as one travels east on Route 64 from Raleigh.

But even within municipalities such as Raleigh, there are differences in life expectancy. Using more detailed data, Chapman was able to learn that someone who grows up and lives in southeast Raleigh would have a shorter predicted lifespan (76 years) than someone living in a North Raleigh suburb (88 years).

He noted that in such a mobile society as the U.S., few people actually are born, live and die in the same town.

“The measure is a good way to identify higher-risk communities with poorer health outcomes,” Chapman said.

Social determinants of health

In public health circles, there’s been a lot of discussion and research in recent years into the factors that determine a person’s overall health, how long they live and how healthy they are as they’re living it. Results from large, long-term research studies in England, called the Whitehall Studies, aimed to explore the complex relationships between income, work status, psychological support, education, health behaviors and the corresponding amounts of disease and early death.

One of the new maps shows differences in life expectancy between neighborhoods in the Research Triangle area.

The studies found that those who were high-level managers had longer lives and less stress-related illness than low-income workers who had little control over their work lives. The research also found that people who had more social supports – groups of friends and relatives around them to help out in times of trouble and stress – tended to have less overall illness and fewer premature deaths.

Chapman noted that education is one of the most predictive factors of who lives healthier lives.

“Improving health requires having a broad range of players at the table,” Chapman said. “Education and income are directly linked to health. On an individual level, having a higher educational level usually leads to having a better job, better insurance, but your income and education also determines the kind of neighborhood you can live in.”

Research has shown that people with more education are less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise, less likely to be overweight or obese and are more likely to live longer lives.

Healthy streets

“Some neighborhoods have unsafe housing that exposes residents to allergens. Maybe they’re places that are closer to highways and factories, or environmental pollutants can factor in,” Chapman said.

Communities that have sidewalks for people to walk on and for kids to play on, and communities that are safe enough for physical activity, also play a part in how healthy the community is, Chapman said. “Or if you’re trying to eat healthy but you don’t have access to a grocery store with fruits and vegetables, you won’t be able to do as well as you could if you were closer to healthy food.”

Chapman said that access to good health care helps improve a community’s health, but it’s not the only factor.

That’s why he said policy decisions make a difference.

“A short-term budget cut to, say, education may result in long-term increases in expenses in terms of health spending and lost tax revenues,” he said.

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