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The Good (City) Life: Why New York's Life Expectancy Is the Highest in the Nation

As the age of death rises in New York City, the "urban health penalty" myth is dying.

Most of us take for granted that urban dwellers are more stressed than country dwellers. Hey, it's even proved by science! Not only that, their day-to-day existence is polluted, crime-ridden, and filled with hedonistic temptations. So they must have lower life expectancies, right? Wrong. In fact, the latest data from the Bureau of Vital Statistics shows New York City—my hometown—has the highest life expectancy in the country. Babies born in 2009 can expect to live a record 80.6 years. That's almost three years longer than a decade ago, and more than two years longer than the current national average of 78.2 years.

Mayor Bloomberg is attributing the good news to policy: anti-smoking and anti-obesity campaigns, higher taxes on cigarettes, and calorie-count requirements for fast food restaurants. The city has also expanded testing and treatment of people with HIV and upped the quality of obstetric and pediatric care. But once you look past the press releases, there are far more wide-ranging reasons for why New Yorkers are lasting longer.

First, we don't spend our entire lives in cars. We walk everywhere. With narrow streets, an abundance of stores, and a dearth of parking, the city is practically designed to make us walk. Before we get on the subway, we walk there, and after we arrive at our stop, we climb numerous flights of stairs. We also walk faster than the average American; in a recent study, New Yorkers were ranked as the fastest pedestrians in the country. To some, that's a sign that we're rude and obnoxious. To scientists, it's a sign we're going to live longer.

Our old people also have it much better than the elderly in bucolic settings. The essentials—food, medicine, laundromats, parks—are usually mere blocks from their homes. The hospital is likely a shorter distance away, too. High population density means a plethora of neighbors who can look after each other. When people live on top of each other, the likelihood of social isolation plummets—and the age of death rises.

Life expectancy isn't the whole story—just because someone is old doesn't mean they're able to live a pleasurable and fulfilling life. But cities like New York tend to provide that, too. There's something to be said for mental stimulation, which New York City delivers in droves. Studies have shown that cultural attractions getting people out of the house and exercising their brains elongate life. So do friends. So, apparently, do random people with crazy outfits walking down the street. The more variety in one's daily life, the more life is, literally, worth living.

Of course, "getting away from it all" is valuable, too. There's a reason why retirees flock to Florida and Arizona. And like everywhere, all New York life isn't created equal. The life expectancy varies wildly by socioeconomic class; unsurprisingly, the Bronx has the lowest age of death. This disparity is made worse by a rapidly gentrifying city (although studies have shown that the presence of wealthier people has a "spillover effect" on nearby neighborhoods). Despite the caveats, this newest data makes it clear: It's high time for the myth of the "urban health penalty to die out.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user craigdietrich.

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