By Jenny McCoy
Ten years ago, longtime Colorado resident Georgina Chavez-Vasquez didn’t feel safe in her western Denver neighborhood. Her car was stolen from her driveway as she ran inside while running the engine to warm it on a cold winter day. She said she feared the police after her brother had a bad experience with officers, and she heard gunshots nearby multiple times a year.
So the first-generation immigrant from Mexico, then a single mother of two, moved a couple miles away to the Greenbriar-Cloverdale neighborhood of Lakewood. There, Chavez-Vasquez says she found quieter, cleaner streets, fewer gunshots, and more opportunities to become civically engaged.
Another perk to her new address that Chavez-Vasquez, 42, didn’t realize at the time: Residents in her particular census tract of Lakewood (#118.03) have an average life expectancy of 79.4 years, about a year and a half higher than those in her prior neighborhood. Even more striking: If she had chosen a residence just half a mile northeast, she would have landed in a census tract (#45.03) where the average life expectancy is far less, at 71.7 years.
Startling gaps in life expectancy—both in Chavez-Vasquez’s pocket of the Denver metro area and in other neighborhoods across the country—were revealed by new census tract-level data released last September as a joint effort of state vital records offices, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
The average life expectancies, which RWJF implemented into an interactive online tool, are based on state death records for 2010 to 2015 and population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, reflecting both the people who have lived in a particular census tract since birth and those who moved there later in life.
The data, known as the United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP), provide for the first time public access to life expectancy rates at the census tract level, focusing on small geographic areas (containing about 4,000 people on average) to reveal more granular population-health outcomes.
County-level information, though helpful in identifying broader trends, “doesn’t take into account what is happening in neighborhoods in terms of segregation, opportunity and conditions,” said Don Schwarz, a senior vice president at RWJF who helped initiate the project. “Since conditions get shaped pretty locally, they affect people locally.”
Colorado, on average, has a life expectancy of 80.5 years, nearly two years higher than the national average of 78.6 years. Yet what stands out is the variability across the state, said Kirk Bol, manager of the Registries & Vital Statistics Branch of the Center for Health & Environmental Data at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE). Bol served on the steering committee for the USALEEP, and also helped CDPHE utilize the results in an interactive, Colorado-specific visual.
That interactive map, known as the Community Health Equity Mapping Project, allows Coloradans to input their address to see life expectancy results (plus other measures of health; more on those below) for their specific census tract and compare them to others across the state.
Within Colorado, residents can expect to live anywhere from 67.3 years (a tract near Sloan Lake in the Edgewater neighborhood of Jefferson County) to 89.5 years (the one and only tract in Cheyenne County)—a difference of more than 22 years. As revealed in the data, communities just miles apart from each other—or even those separated by a single street—can have dramatically different life expectancies.
“It’s very eye-opening,” said Bol.
Susan Brugman, a longtime Lakewood, Colo. resident, learned her census tract in the Belmar neighborhood has an average life expectancy of 80.5 years—nearly 7 years higher than her neighbors living on the other side of Wadsworth Boulevard, less than a quarter mile away and still within the Belmar boundaries.
“I just am surprised, that’s the only thing I can say, because it truly does not make sense that there would be such a discrepancy,” said Brugman, 67, who also owns and rents out a townhome on the other side of Wadsworth from where she resides. “I know several people who live there, and they are all essentially in the same socioeconomic strata as me,” which Brugman described as upper-middle class.
From a broad perspective, life expectancy results in the Denver metro area weren’t all that shocking, said Bol. Lower life expectancies were seen in the north and east portions of the city in tracts with higher rates of poverty, lower rates of educational attainment, and higher rates of chronic disease, including tracts in Adams and Jefferson counties.
“It would make sense that areas we know already are hardest hit in the state are also accompanied by lower life expectancy,” said Bol. “It’s confirmatory and validating to see that, albeit disturbing.”
This variance in life expectancy across the Denver area also doesn’t surprise Chavez-Vasquez, who suspects the gaps in life discrepancy are a reflection, in part, of flaws in the health care system. Yet as a first-generation immigrant, Chavez-Vasquez also sees race and ethnicity playing a potential role in the gaps. (Both her current and previous neighborhoods of residence are predominantly communities of color, per data from the 2012-16 American Community Survey Estimates featured in the CDPHE mapping project.)
“I’ve had to build [success] on my own and that’s a drive most immigrants have—to come and work as much as possible,” Chavez-Vasquez said. “Sometimes, we put our health to the side. It’s an anxiety that you just want to do as much as possible for your future generations.”
Chavez-Vasquez can point to other hardships she experienced, including crime in her old neighborhood, the lack of a familial support system she had when raising her children, discrimination she faced at work, and the poor quality of education she said her children received at the neighborhood elementary school (which ultimately led Chavez-Vasquez to transfer them to another school). All of these variables have been demonstrated to potentially impact health and longevity.
Outside of the Denver metro area, large gaps in life expectancy, previously uncovered by county-level data, were also revealed in western Colorado’s Mesa County.
“We only have three zip codes in the Grand Junction metro area,” said Jeff Kuhr, PhD, executive director of Mesa County Public Health. “That has never worked for us very well” in terms of pinpointing neighborhood-specific issues and needs, he said.
The USALEEP data showed that Mesa County has more than 10 years of variance in life expectancy between census tracts.
Though Clifton, in the Grand Junction metro area, often comes to mind as the most disadvantaged part of the county, said Kuhr, pockets of inner Grand Junction and Orchard Mesa (an unincorporated community adjacent to Grand Junction) showed similarly low life-expectancy rates—between 72.8 years and 76.7 years, respectively, compared to Clifton’s 73.6 years.
“We always [point to] Clifton,” Kuhr said, “but it’s important for people to see that it’s not just one single segment.”
In examining rural areas of the state, certain pockets showed much higher life expectancies than expected, said Bol. Take Cheyenne County, for example. The sparsely populated area in eastern Colorado has higher rates of disability and unemployment, and lower rates of educational attainment—yet it also claims the highest life expectancy in the state (89.5 years, as mentioned).
These seemingly incongruous results suggest “we need to look at other things that promote good health,” said Bol, like community engagement and family structure.
Elsewhere, the census tract covering a large swath of Saguache County in southern Colorado has an average life expectancy of 87.5 years—one of the highest in the state—despite also having high rates of poverty, disability and unemployment, and low rates of educational attainment. The only other census tract in Saguache, a smaller geographic area in the southern portion of the county, has a much lower average life expectancy—77.7 years—with similar rates of the same variables.
In explaining what causes such variation in life expectancy between neighborhoods, residents like Chavez-Vasquez may have hypotheses, but there’s no single driver, said Bol. Rather, it’s a combination of different factors, he explained, which is why the Community Health Equity Mapping Project overlaid the USALEEP data with various factors that affect health, like poverty, education, disability, chronic disease and English-speaking abilities.
The hope with this data, said Bol, is that local public health departments will use it to deepen their understanding of the factors affecting health in their communities and then use that knowledge to better target public health efforts. Kuhr, for one, said the more granular life-expectancy data will help officials in Mesa County determine where to focus resources of public health initiatives, like a new early childhood education program aimed at increasing school readiness. Bol also hopes the data will spark conversations among residents, and challenge preconceived notions about communities.
A separate nationwide study released last October provided additional analysis of how and where we live—down to the exact street address—affects our future. The dataset, called The Opportunity Atlas and released by the U.S. Census Bureau in collaboration with researchers at Harvard and Brown universities, followed 20 million Americans born between 1978 and 1983 from childhood to their mid-30s to show, at a census-tract level, how the neighborhoods children grow up in affect their earnings as adults.
“We want to ask: how does place affect kids who have spent a long time living there?” said Sarah Merchant, a researcher with The Opportunity Atlas, of the impetus of the report.
As with the USALEEP data, The Opportunity Atlas results showed significant variance across the Colorado. Certain neighborhoods, it seems, raise certain children into affluence, while others keep them in poverty.
Children living in low-income families raised in Brugman’s tract in Belmar, for example, ascended into the middle class as adults, earning an average annual salary of $46,000. Similar children raised just across Wadsworth, however, had annual earnings as adults that were significantly less: $36,000. Also close by, children in low-income families raised in an area of Westwood, with an average life expectancy of 71.7 years, earned just $26,000 as adults.
Though significant, these discrepancies are far from the biggest in Colorado. Children of low-income families raised in a particular tract spanning part of Avon and unincorporated Eagle County, for example, earned an average salary of $67,000 as adults—in stark contrast to children of neighbors with similar incomes in the bordering tract to the north, also partly within the Avon town limits and unincorporated Eagle County, who went on to earn just $20,000, among the lowest average salary in Colorado.
This divide is reflective of the “tremendous disparity” between the wealthy residents who own second homes in Avon and the low-income service workers employed at the nearby resorts, said Avon Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes. It’s a chasm that is well-known by those who live in the community, she added.
That said, as with the USALEEP data, there is no official analysis of why certain places might be better at helping people escape poverty than others. “We’re not making any cause and effect claims,” said Merchant.
To eliminate geographic gaps in health and opportunity in Colorado and across the country, a promising place to start would be dismantling policies that protect segregation in housing, banking, education and incarceration, said Schwarz, speaking of the USALEEP data. Both civic leaders and citizens can get involved in the process, added Bol.
The data, which provide a place for people to begin digging into what is driving differences in their own communities, are “really intended to be a start of discussion,” said Bol, “not the end of it.”