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Everyone knows you’re more likely to live a long, healthy life in a wealthy Japanese suburb rather than, let’s say, on the radioactive border of Chernobyl. Average life spans can vary drastically across the world, but many don’t realize stark disparities exist within the United States itself. A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday discovered just that. Researchers found living in one county versus another could potentially shave a full decade off your life, and the disparities between counties with lengthening life spans and dwindling ones are only getting worse. As University of Washington professor and study coauthor Christopher Murray expressed to NPR’s Rob Stein, “It’s dramatic.”
Counties with some of the highest life expectancy rates have residents living up to 87 years old on average, with residents in the lowest counties only living to about 67 years old. This 20-year gap alarmed researchers, reflecting the fatal effects of income disparity. As you can probably guess, wealthier communities with highly educated residents ranked higher on the lifetime expectancy scale than poor communities with fewer opportunities.
NPR shared an animation illustrating a broad view of what those numbers actually mean county by county over the course of 34 years, showing certain pockets of America gaining years while other locales are lagging behind. The map shows in shocking relief the deep divide between Native American and non-native communities. Though as Fusion’s Katherine Krueger notes, that much has been known for some time.
To reach their conclusions, the study’s authors took a deep dive into health records from every county in the United States. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, that’s 3,141 counties. Among the counties with highest life expectancies are Marin County in California and Summit County in Colorado, while the lowest is Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota where the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation is located. Many of the other low life span counties are located in the south along the southern end of the Mississippi River.
By the looks of this analysis, the gap has only widened and will continue to grow without serious intervention. Murray likens the lifespan differences in America to the disparities between India and Japan. Perhaps Murray and his team have only confirmed what we’ve known all along, that America is neither a first world country nor a third world country, but an amalgamation of the two.