Minnesotans are less likely to die prematurely from conditions such as stroke and heart disease than people in other parts of the country, but the state’s protective benefits don’t appear to extend to poor and minority residents.
Premature deaths — those that might be avoided with proper medical care — were more than twice as likely in regions of the state with the largest impoverished and minority populations, the Minnesota Department of Health reported Wednesday. While racial and economic health disparities have been documented in the state for decades, the size of the gap in death rates still shocked the state researchers.
“Where you live in the state can affect how long you live,” according to the report, which examined census population data along with state death records from 2011 through 2015.
Preventable deaths were also characterized as “health care amenable” deaths — meaning that good and timely medical care could reduce their likelihood. Such deaths include those from stroke, heart disease and screenable cancers, but also deaths from surgical errors and from diseases such as influenza and pneumonia that can be reduced through vaccination.
Overall, one in five deaths of Minnesotans 75 and younger in the study period were deemed preventable. Rich white people weren’t immune, but their odds of premature death were lower. And when these deaths did occur in poor and diverse communities in Minnesota, they tended to occur sooner.
The average age at which these deaths occurred in higher-income white communities was 57, but dropped to 54 in low-income white communities, and 50 in low-income diverse communities.
The findings suggest that Minnesota can’t afford complacency, despite research by organizations such as the Commonwealth Fund that found Minnesota to have the lowest rate of preventable deaths in the nation, said Stefan Gildemeister, state health economist.
“Minnesota as a state really performs pretty well in national comparisons,” he said, “but when you peel the layers of the onion ... there are some really big disparities.”
The analysis examined low-income and low-income diverse communities collectively, so it didn’t specify which of these communities were worse off than others. These areas tended to concentrate in urban sections of the Twin Cities and remote regions of northwest Minnesota — including some areas containing or adjacent to American Indian reservations.
The connection wasn’t absolute. Higher preventable death rates were detected in census tracts in northeastern Hennepin County, for example, where there were no elevated rates of poverty or minority residents. But even those areas tended to be adjacent to diverse, high-poverty communities.
A lack of income can result in poorer health care and outcomes in many ways, said Alisha Simon, a senior researcher in the state health economics program. “Something as simple as transportation and the ability to take time off work can delay things like cancer screenings.”