By: Jennifer Chubinski
Life expectancy is 20 years shorter for people living in some of our city’s neighborhoods. In the photo below, Dr. Camille Jones (light suit seated at the table), assistant health commissioner at the Cincinnati Health Department, discusses the Health Department’s life expectancy data during a panel at a recent Urban Land Institute event about building healthy places.
A stunned silence filled the room when the graph in the picture (and below) was shown.
Take a look at the graph below, also available here. The red line represents average life expectancy for the city – 76.7 years. This table shows a 20-year difference in life expectancy from the neighborhoods on the left side of the graph (life expectancy of about 65 years) to the neighborhoods on the right side (life expectancy of about 88 years).
What is life expectancy?
Life expectancy is defined as the estimated average number of years a baby born today would live if mortality rates that are seen today stayed the same over the baby’s entire life.
The Health Department summarizes these data this way:
“Findings show that residents of the Mt. Lookout / Columbia Tusculum neighborhood grouping live to about 88 years, roughly 20 years longer than residents of South Fairmount. Further, African American men citywide have a life expectancy nearly 10 years less than their white male counterparts. The difference between African American women and white women is less, but still concerning, at about seven years. These findings point to significant health inequities that must be addressed as a community.”
Mapping these data shows clusters of neighborhoods with shorter life expectancy (shaded in a darker blue) and longer life expectancy (shaded in a lighter blue). This map is also available here. If I were to overlay this map with a map of poverty rates, you would see that neighborhoods with lower life expectancy are often those with very high poverty rates.
Why are these data important?
- They are very easy to understand: As a lover of health data, I find this data presentation incredibly effective. Everyone, no matter their technical sophistication, can understand what living 20 years less means. It’s a data point that is easy to understand and, at least for me, immediately led me to think of the things I would be missing between age 65 and 88.
- They are an indication of the health of the whole population: What we get from these data is a clear sense that some neighborhoods are much healthier than others – there are clear inequalities in health outcomes for people from communities that share borders or are a short drive from each other. In the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s recently released 2014 County Health Rankings, Hamilton County’s mortality rates compare poorly to other counties in Ohio. As the Cincinnati Enquirer points out here, life expectancies in many of our communities are on-par with developing countries, not the developed world.
- Data at the neighborhood level have real local meaning: Many of us live, work or play in some of the city’s neighborhoods; we know what the community looks and feels like. Data at this level of geography are very effective because they are so locally focused. Looking at the data at the neighborhood level helps the community focus on things it can do to change life expectancy.
What can we do?
Of course, I’ve seen Dr. Jones discuss these data on several occasions and she is the first one to say that life expectancy is not a promise. Living in a neighborhood with very low life expectancy does not mean you personally will live only to age 65.
Life expectancy at the neighborhood level is affected by income, education, environmental exposures, health behaviors, infant mortality, genetics, individual behavior, diet, smoking, access to healthcare and many other factors. As a community we need to think deeply about environmental and social factors that influence health inequalities. From the Health Department’s website: “It should be noted that life expectancy may be influenced by a person's condition, race, sex, age, and other demographic factors.” We need to work on improved health and quality of life upstream. This includes reducing poverty rates and stressful conditions as well as some of the leading causes of early death: poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol.
We as a community have the ability to improve these data. How do you think we should do it?
If you want to learn more about these data, please contact Ms. Laura Till or Dr. Camille Jones at email@example.com or 513-357-7274.