28 miles but worlds apart: life expectancy in Central Indiana

By Rich Schneider, IU Communication Specialist:

The saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer only tells part of the story.

The rich, or those who live in a community with greater access to health-promoting and health-protecting resources and opportunities, also have a greater life expectancy, according to “Worlds Apart: Gaps in Life Expectancy in the Indianapolis Metro Area.”

The report — produced by the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in partnership with The Polis Center at IUPUI — looks at the life expectancies of residents in 11 Central Indiana counties as well as smaller geographic areas within those counties.

Among those smaller areas are two ZIP codes, one in Carmel and the other just south of Monument Circle in Indianapolis. The two ZIP codes are just 28 miles from each other, but they are a world apart in terms of life expectancy.

Those living in the Carmel ZIP code have a life expectancy of 83.7 years, compared to 69.4 years for those living in the inner-city ZIP code.

life gap 1

A life expectancy gap is not unique to those two ZIP codes. Consistent with patterns noted in other U.S. cities, there is a cluster of low life expectancy in the ZIP codes of the urban core, while areas of high life expectancy form a ring around that core along the suburban transitions from the city.

The report’s calculations of life expectancy at birth are based upon the record of deaths and corresponding population size in a given county or ZIP code during the five-year period from 2009 to 2013.

According to the report, when certain communities have shorter life expectancy, it does not simply mean that older members lose a few years at the end of life. Some residents die much too young – perhaps in infancy, or in early adulthood, or from the effects of chronic diseases being played out decades too soon. These premature deaths have a larger influence on a community’s life expectancy than do deaths at older ages.

What the numbers show is how where you live can affect your health, said Tess Weathers, a faculty member in the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health’s Social and Behavioral Sciences department and the lead researcher on the project. “That life expectancy number tells us something about the place, the conditions of everyday living in those communities that makes things different.

“Suddenly, you realize that a very small distance can make a big difference in the trajectory of a person’s life,” Weathers said. “And then you have to ask yourself why is that? And what can we do about it? We hope this report starts a conversation and brings diverse voices together to look for answers to the questions. A gap of this size should not exist in the heartland of America.”

While life expectancy is partly based on someone’s life choices, such as diet and smoking, and on genetics, this study also shows just how much the community plays a part, she said.

About 25 percent of the health of a population is attributed to genes, biology and health behaviors, and roughly 75 percent of population health is attributed to upstream “social determinants of health,” referring to “greater access to health-promoting and health-protecting resources and opportunities,” according to the report.

In many places, meeting fundamental human needs is difficult because of economic and social disadvantage, Weathers said.

“Accessing resources that many of us take for granted — such as quality child care and quality education, safe and affordable housing, a secure job with decent pay, air and soil free of toxic pollutants, and a place to play, shop or socialize with neighbors without fear of crime and discrimination — is extremely difficult in some communities,” she said. “All of these differences in opportunity contribute to variations in the number of years certain populations can expect to live.”

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