Being born in the wrong ZIP code can shorten your life

Newly released data on life expectancy across the U.S. shows that where we live matters for how long we live.

A person in the U.S. can expect to live an average of 78.8 years, according to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, life expectancy varies widely across geography. A child born in Mississippi today could expect to never reach his or her 75th birthday. But a child born in California, Hawaii or New York could expect to reach their expect to live into the early 80s.

Life expectancy at birth by census tract, 2010–2015. NCHS, National Vital Statistics Systems, Mortality
At the neighborhood level, these differences are sometimes even more drastic, appearing even when communities are only a few miles apart. In Washington, D.C., for example, people living in the Barry Farms neighborhood face a life expectancy of 63.2 years. Yet, less than 10 miles away, a baby born in Friendship Heights and Friendship Village can expect to live 96.1 year, according to CDC data.

Just 10 miles represent a life expectancy difference of almost 33 years, a generation lost due to premature deaths. Overall, any two census tracts in the U.S. can differ in expected life expectancy by 41.2 years, a staggering range. These missing lives have important social and economic costs, for families, communities and workplaces.

The opioid epidemic and increases in suicide rates are partially responsible for premature deaths and a decline in life expectancy, especially among working-class, middle-age whites. But these causes fail to explain long-standing differences in life expectancy across place, race and class.

Neighborhoods with large black populations tend to have lower life expectancies than communities that are majority white, Hispanic or Asian. Such racial differences reflect the places in which different races live, not the individual characteristics of people themselves. Research shows that black communities are less likely to have access to resources that promote health, like grocery stores with fresh foods, places to exercise and quality health care facilities. This is true even in middle-class neighborhoods.