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…
Since the 1980s, “socioeconomic status has become an even more important indicator of life expectancy.” That was the finding of a 2008 report by the Congressional Budget Office. 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.
This is part of a growing body of research that links demographics and social forces, including social spaces, to different health outcomes. Wealthier counties can offer a wide range of health and social services as well as have more higher class residents while poorer counties have different social structures.
While the county level data is interesting, I would assume there would also be some wide differences in life expectancy within counties. Fairfax County, Virginia is one of the wealthiest U.S. counties but income levels there are not uniform. Cook County, Illinois could include some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago as well as Kenilworth, Illinois, one of the wealthiest suburbs with a median household income of over $247,000. Check out these maps from VCU’s Center on Society and Health on life expectancy in metro areas. Here is what they found in Chicago:
So the contrast between a county in Virginia versus one in West Virginia might be notable but one doesn’t have to travel that far to find big differences in life expectancy.