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THE INC. LIFE

This Is the No. 1 Factor That Determines How Long You’ll Live (It’s Truly Grim)

A researcher sheds light on the difference your zip code makes.

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BY Betsy Mikel - 14 Jun 2018

This Is the No. 1 Factor That Determines How Long You'll Live (It's Truly Grim)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Just six miles and seven subway stops separate a gaping disparity in life expectancy in Chicago.

If you live in the Loop, an affluent neighborhood Chicago's city center, the average life expectancy is 85. That's on par with Japan, one of the world's richest countries.

Take the L train seven stops west to Garfield Park, and life expectancy drops by 16 years. The life expectancy in West Garfield Park is just 69. That's on par with Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries.

Life expectancy varies not only from state to state, as a recent nationwide study found. It also varies from neighborhood to neighborhood in the same city.

David A. Ansell presented these grim statistics on stage at a recent TedX Chicago event. Ansell brought forth this information to make a compelling point: If you are poor, where you live can dictate when you die.

The physician and human rights activist has worked as a doctor at hospitals serving some of the poorest communities in Chicago for four decades. He published a book last year about his findings called "The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills."

Since the event took place in Chicago, Ansell honed in on life expectancy in this particular city. There's a misconception that people die younger in certain Chicago communities because of gun violence. Ansell said that isn't why. Chronic and treatable conditions -- including diabetes, asthma, hypertension and congestive heart failure -- are to blame. "People die early from conditions we have treatment for," Ansell said.

Chicago residents aren't the only ones affected. As a social epidemiologist, Ansell studies the effects of social-structural factors on health across the United States. He's found the same life expectancy disparities between wealthy and poor communities nationwide. In some cases, he's uncovered a 35-year difference in life expectancy between America's healthiest and wealthiest communities and its poorest and sickest.

A litany of factors exacerbate health inequalities, especially in poor urban black communities. Ansell calls this structural violence. Poor access to healthy food is a given. So is access to good healthcare. Other factors such as unsafe housing, unreliable transportation and limited job opportunities also contribute to chronic stress that have detrimental effects on people's health.

Ansell couldn't just leave the audience feeling the weight a large gaping problem. Step one was making the audience aware that health inequity exists. In true TED form, he then moved onto solutions. Ansell is part of a collaborative project to help improve the health of people who live in nine Chicago neighborhoods with the lowest life expectancy. The project aims to improve access to healthcare, education and job opportunities in these communities. The premise is that everyone deserves the right to be healthy.

Tactics include expanding existing programming and coordinating new strategies to improve access to healthy food. Place more community health workers in these communities. Increase local hiring and support local business development. All initiatives address underlying causes of poor health.

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