New Life Expectancy Data Allow Officials To See Neighborhood Differences

Sep 25, 2018

Credit Jennifer Weingart / WVPE Public Radio

New data from the Census Bureau shows localized life expectancy data, a closer look than what was provided before. It’s allowing local health departments to concentrate efforts in struggling places.

Before these data some life expectancy information was available separated into zip codes, but those data were not available for every zip code. These new numbers are by census tract, a geographic area with roughly four thousand people.

In Berrien County, Michigan the highest life expectancies are around 87 years in Berrien Springs, parts of St. Joe, Lakeshore and Shoreham and the lowest is 67 years in parts of Benton Harbor.

Lynn Todman is Director for Population Health at Lakeland Healthcare. She said the data show the impact of environmental factors on health.

“I think now health care providers understand that creating health is fundamentally about community development. It is about housing, it is about food access, it’s about education, it’s about law enforcement.”

Todman says up to 75 percent of health outcomes come from those factors.

Health Officer for the Berrien County Health Department, Nikki Britten, said having these data helps them show people that they way they live is not the same as their neighbors.

“If you’re living in one of those communities with high life expectancy sometimes you tend to assume that everyone else in neighboring communities are experiencing that same thing but this data helps to realize that your experience might not be the experience of someone in a neighboring community.”

Britten and Todman said having this data allows them to educate the public about where the problem areas are and why. They say the conversation around community health has changes recently as people are more willing to speak more candidly about the effects of poverty, race, neighbor, and other social factors on health and life expectancy.

Britten said the way to solutions is through policy changes.

“If we’re able to actually understand what is actually causing some of these differences and understand that they exist we can more cohesively come to a policy solution that actually addresses the problem at hand.”

She said without the data it’s difficult to show where and what the problems are. She said some of the places that have the lowest life expectancies, correlate with the places that the USDA define as food desserts, a point that could not be backed up before.

“It’s hard to address policies if not everybody’s on the same page that there even is a problem to address,” Britten said.

Todman and Britten said the solutions, particularly with policy changes are not thing that happen over night. They said the interventions that are begun now may take a generation or a few to really show in the population and the data, but nothing will happen if nothing is done.

If you’re interested in learning more about life expectancy disparities, Lakeland Health is hosting a talk by Dr. David Ansell on the subject on Thursday (9/27) at Lake Michigan College Hanson Theatre, it will also be livestreamed online.