A woman plays dominoes in Orange County in Florida, a state with a wide disparity… (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda…)
The U.S. simply isn't keeping up with the rest of the developed world in life expectancy, new research revealed this week. And women in particular are backsliding, a trend attributed in part to obesity and smoking. But the devil is in the details.
Some counties are keeping pace, while others have life expectancies similar to those of Honduras and El Salvador (i.e., not great). Between 2000 and 2007, more than 80% of U.S. counties have slipped in standing against what researchers term the international frontier: the life expectancy of the 10 nations with the lowest mortality.
To take a closer look at how each county fared, readers can check out interactive maps of the data, courtesy of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a University of Washington group that coauthored the new report.
Take Cook County, Ill., which contains most of Chicago (not to mention Tribune Co., parent of HealthKey) and is the second-most populous county in the U.S., after Los Angeles County.
Zooming in on Cook County, a user learns -- via pop-up window in the map -- that in 1987 the average female life expectancy was 77 years, which was 14 years behind the international frontier.
Fast-forward (using arrows in the upper right) to 2007, and the average female life expectancy is now 80.7 years. But, according to the pop-up window, that’s 17 years behind the international frontier.
The information is there — data geeks could spend hours.
In some places, the socioeconomic gap is obvious, as articles analyzing the data point out. Florida has the county with the best life expectancy, but it’s also one of the top four states with the greatest disparities in longevity.
The disparity exists within counties too. Some wealthy communities in Baltimore have life expectancies 20 years longer than those of other neighborhoods.
And as a Hartford Courant article notes: Connecticut men and women rank near the top in the United States for longevity, which health experts attribute to diet, activity and affluence.
Meanwhile, despite a higher-than-average poverty rate, Los Angeles County, where nearly a third of the residents are foreign-born, has among the highest life expectancies in the U.S.
The data are all there, and now it’s open season for researchers, journalists and pundits to come up with explanations – and next steps.
In analyzing the data, a Baltimore Sun editorial offers this take-home message:
“We can change these trends. … The aim should be not only to provide universal access to care but also to teach people to use the health services that are available to them earlier and more effectively. We know what it would take for the United States to catch up to the rest of the developed world in its health outcomes, and it doesn't depend solely on expensive miracle drugs or high-tech therapies.”