AVTG/istockphoto.comAir pollution and exposure to toxics can be factors in an area's life expectancy.
Where you live can be an indicator of how long you'll live, according to a new study on San Joaquin Valley health.
Published by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, the report found that in counties spanning from Tulare to Stanislaus, life expectancy varied markedly by ZIP code. In the most extreme cases, there was as much as a 21-year difference between neighborhoods.
“It doesn’t have to do with the attributes of the individuals in a community, but often the conditions they find themselves living in,” Brian Smedley, vice president and director of the center’s Health Policy Institute, said of the wide swing in life expectancy across the valley. “Some people in neighborhoods that enjoy the best and worst health are just a few miles apart.”
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For public health experts, life expectancy is a stark indicator of a community’s overall public health risks.
"Even 10 to 12 years is huge by an international comparison,” said John Amson Capitman, a public health professor at CSU Fresno who helped produce the report, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health. “It’s the difference between the life expectancy in Thailand and Japan, or between Tonga and the U.S.”
Income and race also are factors.
“ZIP codes with the lowest life expectancy tend to have a higher percentage of Hispanic and low-income residents,” stated the report released this month.
In Fresno, residents living in more affluent and primarily white Woodward Park can expect to live up to nine years longer compared with residents in historically black and lower-income Southwest Fresno, about 20 miles away. Meanwhile, residents in Huron, a small town about an hour from the city of Fresno, live to age 94.
Southwest Fresno resident Eric Payne, who described his community as a “fast food swamp,” said there are zoning and environmental reasons why his ZIP code is less healthy compared with other Fresno communities, and life expectancy is 75. He said poor access to healthy food, combined with industries located there – a trash facility, two meat processing plants and an animal fat rendering plant – means that residents live less active lifestyles.
The rendering plant, especially, “really disrupts the well-being and livability of the community,” said Payne, who is African-American and oversees a neighborhood youth group called the Fresno Youth Council for Sustainable Communities. “It really hinders your physical activity. The smells make you not want to go outside. It smells like roadkill.”
But in the neighborhood of Woodward Park, residents can expect to live nearly a decade longer, to age 84. It’s “a different kind of community,” Payne said. “There’s money in that community,” as evidenced by the high-end retail, sit-down restaurants, universities and health care facilities, he said.
Public health experts like CSU Fresno's Capitman said these differences in life expectancy reflect how income has become a proxy for whether communities have the "basic ingredients for a good quality of life" that can influence health.
“These dramatic differences in life expectancy speak to a broad sense of factors like air pollution, housing quality, other toxics exposure in the environment, as well as stressors associated with poverty, lack of educational opportunity and safety concerns,” Capitman said. “All of that adds up to create differences in life outcomes.” Public policies, he said, have "created and sustained the concentration of health risks in these communities."
To view life expectancy by city or community, click on the map below:
The report also found that the rate of premature deaths in the lowest-income ZIP codes of the San Joaquin Valley is nearly twice that of high-income neighborhoods, and areas near and around Tulare faced the highest risks for respiratory problems related to toxic air.
These health issues can begin to be addressed by reorienting the agricultural industry toward social and environmental responsibility and adopting land use policies “that reflect an emphasis on smart and equitable growth,” the report said.
The findings of the San Joaquin study mirror a 2008 Alameda County analysis [PDF], which found that residents in the wealthier Oakland Hills area could expect to live 10 years longer than people living in lower-income West Oakland. An updated Alameda County report will be published by the Joint Center later this year, and similar studies will be completed in eight locations across the country, including Chicago and the Mississippi Delta.
The Joint Center’s Smedley said the health disparities reported in the San Joaquin Valley study reflect national patterns.
“This report documents the distribution of social, economic, environmental health risks, and it finds that many risks cluster in high-poverty communities and communities of color,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is not surprising. We see that in community after community in the United States.”