Key to long life? It may be in ... your ZIP code

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2010 - 10:17 PM

Your neighborhood, specifically, your neighborhood's income, has a dramatic effect on longevity, and not just at the extremes.

If you're hoping to live a long life, you might start with a map.

People in Edina, Chanhassen and several other suburbs can expect to live eight to 13 years longer than those in the poorest neighborhoods of the Twin Cities, according to a report Thursday by Wilder Research.

The report, about health disparities in the Twin Cities, shows how dramatically people's lifespans can vary depending on where they live, down to the ZIP code.

For example, people living in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis and Dayton's Bluff in St. Paul have some of the shortest life expectancies in the Twin Cities, between 70 and 75 years. Those in a swath of suburbs west of Minneapolis and in parts of Dakota County have the longest: 83 years.

"The relationship between an area's income and mortality is so striking," the report says, "that on average, every $10,000 increase in an area's median income appears to buy its residents another year of life."

The study, commissioned by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, confirmed what researchers have long known: Poverty and other conditions, such as unsafe neighborhoods, have a huge effect on people's health.

But it also shows how the differences can ripple across the metropolitan area, from blue-collar to middle-class to wealthy neighborhoods.

Live in Hastings? Woodbury? White Bear Lake? There, life expectancy is slightly lower than the top-tier areas, averaging 80 years, the report found.

The average drops to 77 years in what the report calls "working-class" areas such as Fridley, Inver Grove Heights, and outer-ring areas like Bethel and Stillwater. A few city neighborhoods fall into this category, as well, including Camden and Longfellow in Minneapolis, and North End and Merriam Park in St. Paul.

Income, neighbors matter

Why? Much of it has to do with income levels, the report acknowledges; it's well known that people in poverty have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

But neighborhoods also play a role, the authors said. That includes whether there's ready access to fresh, affordable food; the streets are safe enough for kids to play outside; and active lifestyles are a part of the norm.

"It's not just your own income, but the income of the areas in which you live that impacts your health," said Craig Helmstetter, a Wilder scientist who co-authored the report. "If you do live in a lower-income or even a medium-income neighborhood, compared to higher-income areas, ... your chances of good health are decreased." Often, he said, people think about health differences in terms of access to medical care or personal behavior, such as smoking and drinking. "What's often left out of the debate are these social and economic factors, and how they affect your health."

Gaps among racial groups

The report also found dramatic gaps in life expectancy among racial groups, "but not always in the ways that you might guess," said Helmstetter. Groups with large numbers of immigrants -- Asians, Hispanics and foreign-born blacks -- had the lowest mortality rates.

The authors call this the "immigrant advantage," saying it probably has to do with healthful diets, less sedentary lifestyles and close cultural ties among new arrivals. They said this finding "suggests that many of us could benefit from emulating the diet and lifestyle brought by many of our region's immigrant groups."

Overall, the report found that Asians have the longest life expectancy, 83 years; whites: 81 years; African-Americans: 74 years, and American Indians have the lowest: 61 years.

The disparities are not surprising, given the economic and historical challenges that blacks and American Indians have faced, said Atum Azzahir, president of the Cultural Wellness Center, and Justin Huenemann, president of the Native American Community Development Institute, who were part of a discussion panel Thursday at Wilder's headquarters in St. Paul. Both, however, said there's reason for hope, and that the best solutions will come from within the communities themselves.

Huenemann noted that the Indian community has made strides with the creation of Indian-owned businesses and cultural sites in Minneapolis. "There is a renaissance happening," he said, but it will require both "spiritual nourishment" and financial investment to turn things around. "I don't want your charity, I want your partnership," he said.

Focus on what to do

The report was designed to shed light on "what's driving poor health," said Patrick Geraghty, board chair of the Blue Cross foundation. "What we're hoping comes out of this is, rather than a desire to move to a better ZIP code, more of an understanding of what we can do societally and collaboratively to improve all parts of the area."

The solution, he said, will require a "large-scale" effort to improve conditions in the poorest neighborhoods -- including housing, education and job opportunities. The report, he hopes, will help start the discussion on "where we should and could spend our resources to get the most impact."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

LONGEVITY BY ZIP CODE

83 years: Edina, Minnetonka, Chanhassen, Bloomington, Eagan.

80 years: Hastings, Woodbury, White Bear Lake, Andover, Plymouth, Carver County.

77 years: Fridley, North St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights, Belle Plaine, Maple Plain, Bethel, Stillwater.

70-75 years: Minneapolis neighborhoods Near North, Phillips and Powderhorn; St. Paul neighborhoods Frogtown, West Seventh, Payne-Phalen and Dayton's Bluff.

Source: Wilder Research
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