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Major New Study Finds Geography Can Affect Life Span as Much as Income

"There are some places where the poor are doing quite well, gaining just as much in terms of life span as the rich.”

We’re still a long ways from truly addressing the discrepancy between the ultra rich and the poor. But a major new study sheds some positive light on how local health policies can help even those facing serious economic challenges to live longer lives on par with their wealthier neighbors.

In short, it’s not just how much money you make but where you live. An extensive new report from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that just having access to higher income levels didn’t automatically equate to living longer, healthier lives. Overall, there’s no denying that wealthier people are doing better. But poorer Americans typically associated with shorter life spans actually fared nearly as well as their wealthier counterparts if they lived in cities like San Francisco, which offer greater access to health information services and social welfare.

"There are some places where the poor are doing quite well, gaining just as much in terms of life span as the rich, but there are other places where they're actually going in the other direction, where the poor are living shorter lives today than they did in the past," Stanford Economics Professor and study author Raj Chetty said in an interview with NPR.

The study pulled together information from 1.4 billion Social Security records and found some surprising results. For example, poorer people in Birmingham, Alabama enjoyed higher life expectancy levels comparable to higher-income folks. Meanwhile, lower-income people in places like Detroit and Tulsa, Oklahoma (the two poorest performing cities in the study) are seeing their life expectancy levels drop, in a widening gap between the rich and poor.

Chetty said that overall income still remains a dominant factor in the overall health of women and men across the U.S., with men in the top one percent income level living an average of 15 years longer than those in the bottom one percent. And there has also been a lag since 2001 between the growing life expectancy of the rich and the poor. However, the numbers might not be ironclad. Over at Forbes, Tim Worstall notes that the Social Security data only measures where people lived at the time of their deaths, not where they lived throughout their entire lives. So, someone might have lived a healthy and prosperous life in New York, then those to spend their golden years in Florida, which could skew the data points for both states.

Nonetheless, the study’s authors say their findings show that local policy leaders have a major role to play when it comes to making decisions about healthcare, education and overall wellness that can significantly impact the well-being of their populations across the economic spectrum. Helping a local population make healthier choices about what they eat, how much they exercise and other lifestyle choices could go a long way toward improving and increasing their lives, even if they remain in lower income brackets.

“You want to think about this problem at a more local level than you might have before,” Chetty told the New York Times. “You don’t want to just think about why things are going badly for the poor in America. You want to think specifically about why they’re going poorly in Tulsa and Detroit.”

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