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Health, Science, Environment

Researchers find 12-year life expectancy gap in north St. Louis County

Virginia Commonwealth University mapped severe health disparities in north St. Louis County by comparing census tract-level data for life expectancy.
provided by Virginia Commonwealth University
Virginia Commonwealth University mapped severe health disparities in north St. Louis County by comparing census tract-level data for life expectancy.

People who live in different parts of north St. Louis County may have a 12-year difference in how long they can expect to live, according to an analysis of census tracts by Virginia Commonwealth University.

The school’s Center on Society and Health has released two dozen maps of life expectancy gaps in selected metro areas over the past three years. The findings in St. Louis closely mirror the results of the For the Sake of All study in 2014, which used zip code-level data to reach its conclusions.

As with other cities the researchers have mapped, lead researcher Derek Chapman said he sees a couple patterns in north St. Louis County. First, even small geographic areas have disparities for how long people live, and it’s often tied to income. Second, even though the map’s lowest life expectancy is 69 and the highest is 81, most neighborhoods fall in the middle.

“We see 71s and 73s and 77s. We see health gradients across the areas, really. These place-based factors that influence health affect all people in the community, not just the place that has the most challenges.” Chapman said.

Place-based factors refer to things like access to grocery stores and parks, which make eating well and working out more convenient. Or it can be something like air pollution, which tends to concentrate in low-income areas.

“Social and economic resources, features of the built environment impact health outcomes, and those things are not equally distributed around St. Louis,” said Jason Purnell, a professor at Washington University and principal investigator of the For The Sake of All project.  

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University chose to map north St. Louis County after receiving input from local officials, who indicated that they were aware of significant disparities but hoped for more localized data.

“It’s well and good for somebody to preach to people about healthy lifestyles. But if they cannot afford them or do not have access to them, then it’s a moot point,” said Faisal Khan, director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.  

Still, both Purnell and Khan reiterated that these issues are generational, and cannot be fixed overnight. 

"What we know is we've got to invest beyond just medical care," Purnell said. "Medical care is absolutely necessary. It's essential. But it's not going to be sufficient to close these gaps in life and health." 

VCU’s maps have compared life expectancies between counties in Kentucky and metro stops in Washington, D.C. An analysis in Kansas City found a 14-year life expectancy gap along highway 71.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

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