From NY Times: http://t.co/fNm0nFOUdK
Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. Just outside of Washington, fat government contracts and a growing technology sector buoy the median household income in Fairfax County up to $107,000, one of the highest in the nation. McDowell, with the decline of coal, has little in the way of industry. Unemployment is high. Drug abuse is rampant. Median household income is about one-fifth that of Fairfax.
One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq….
There have long been stark economic differences between Fairfax County and McDowell. But as their fortunes have diverged even further over the past generation, their life expectancies have diverged, too. In McDowell, women’s life expectancy has actually fallen by two years since 1985; it grew five years in Fairfax.
“Poverty is a thief,” said Michael Reisch, a professor of social justice at the University of Maryland, testifying before a Senate panel on the issue. “Poverty not only diminishes a person’s life chances, it steals years from one’s life.”
That reality is playing out across the country. For the upper half of the income spectrum, men who reach the age of 65 are living about six years longer than they did in the late 1970s. Men in the lower half are living just 1.3 years longer.
This life-expectancy gap has started to surface in discussions among researchers, public health officials and Washington policy makers. The general trend is for Americans to live longer, and as lawmakers contemplate changes to government programs — like nudging up the Social Security retirement age or changing its cost-of-living adjustment — they are confronted with the potential unfairness to those who die considerably earlier.
The link between income and longevity has been clearly established. Poor people are likelier to smoke. They have less access to the health care system. They tend to weigh more. And their bodies suffer the debilitating effects of more intense and more constant stress. Everywhere, and across time, the poor tend to live shorter lives than the rich, whether researchers compare the Bangladeshis with the Dutch or minimum-wage workers with millionaires.
But is widening income inequality behind the divergence in longevity over the last three decades? …
Living in Fairfax is different than living in McDowell.
In Fairfax, there are ample doctors, hospitals, recreation centers, shops, restaurants, grocery stores, nursing homes and day care centers, with public and private entities providing cradle-to-grave services to prosperous communities…
The jobs tend to be good jobs, providing health insurance and pensions, even if there is a growing low-wage work force of health aides, janitors, fast-food workers and the like. “It’s a knowledge-based work force,” Mr. Fuller said. “And we have an economy built on services, technology-intensive services.”
…350 miles away, …
Coal miners still dig into and blast off the tops of steep Appalachian hills. But the industry that once provided thousands of jobs is slowly disappearing, and the region’s entrenched poverty has persisted. The unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, down from more than 13 percent in the worst of the recession. The current number would be even higher if more residents hadn’t simply given up looking for work.
Many people … have multiple woes: “Diabetes. Obesity. Congestive heart failure. Drug use. Kidney problems. Lung conditions from the mines.” Problems often start young and often result in shorter lives, she said. Earlier that day, she handed me a list of recent funerals with about half highlighted in yellow; they signified that the deceased was under 50…
But dollars in a bank account have never added a day to anyone’s life, researchers stress. Instead, those dollars are at work in a thousand daily-life decisions — about jobs, medical care, housing, food and exercise — with a cumulative effect on longevity…
As such, the health statistics for Fairfax and McDowell are as striking as their income data. In Fairfax, the adult obesity rate is about 24 percent and one in eight residents smokes. In McDowell, the adult obesity rate is more than 30 percent and one in three adults smokes. And the disability rate is about five times higher in McDowell.
In both counties, food availability matters. There are only two full-size grocery stores in McDowell; minimarts and fast-food restaurants are major sources of nutrition. “We don’t have gyms or fitness centers,” said Pamela McPeak, who grew up in McDowell getting creek water to flush her family’s toilet. “It’s cheaper to buy Cheetos rather than apples.” She now runs a nonprofit program that provides tutoring and helps high school students get into college.
Education is also correlated with longevity, as it is with income and employment. Educated individuals are much more likely to work, and much more likely to have higher incomes. In McDowell, about one in 18 adults has a college degree; in Fairfax, the share is 60 percent.
Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, researchers say that a life in poverty is a life of stress that accumulates in a person’s very cells. Being poor is hard in a way that can mean worse sleep, more cortisol in the blood, a greater risk of hypertension and, ultimately, a shorter life…
It is hard to prove causality with the available information. County-level data is the most detailed available, but it is not perfect. People move, and that is a confounding factor. McDowell’s population has dropped by more than half since the late 1970s, whereas Fairfax’s has roughly doubled. Perhaps more educated and healthier people have been relocating from places like McDowell to places like Fairfax. In that case, life expectancy would not have changed; how Americans arrange themselves geographically would have…
In particular, changes in smoking and obesity rates may help explain the connection between bigger bank accounts and longer lives. “Richer people and richer communities smoke less, and that gap is growing,” said Dr. Murray at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation…
To some extent, the broad expansion of health insurance to low-income communities, as called for under Obamacare, may help to mitigate this stark divide, experts say. And it is encouraging that both Republicans and Democrats have recently elevated the issues of poverty, economic mobility and inequality, But the contrast between McDowell and Fairfax shows just how deeply entrenched these trends are, with consequences reaching all the way from people’s pocketbooks to their graves.
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