To understand life expectancy, Oklahoma City is looking beyond health

Oct. 1, 2019

LT Knighten

The zip code where someone lives should not determine their life expectancy. However, data from Oklahoma City, and many cities across the country, show that this is unfortunately the case.

Identifying life expectancy trends at the local level provides meaningful data for decision making and program initiatives. In Oklahoma City, data on life expectancy is included in the Wellness Score, published by the OKC-County Health Department (OCCHD) every three years, ranking each OKC-County zip code across multiple categories. The purpose of the Wellness Score is to illustrate the impact social, economic, environmental, and physical determinants have on individual and community health outcomes. In Oklahoma City, residents who live in the zip code with the longest life expectancy live almost 18 years longer than residents in the zip code with the shortest life expectancy, as identified in the Wellness Score report.

What Affects Our Life Expectancy?

We are all better off when everyone has the opportunity to live a healthier and longer life. A healthy community is a productive community that contributes to economic growth. Healthier, happier citizens create cost savings for city and state governments, and the increased quality of life gives cities a competitive edge in business development. But health disparities across communities may indicate that policy and infrastructure is not equitably distributed across population centers. Neighborhood gaps, like those we see with life expectancy, exist across other drivers of health and are not uncommon in urban communities. For example, residents in the city’s unhealthiest neighborhoods with the shortest life expectancies also have incomes that are, on average, $27,163 below the national median. Residents in the healthiest neighborhoods with the longest life expectancies have, on average, incomes $9,813 above the national median. Poverty and income levels have been shown to impact health outcomes like stress, which can affect overall life expectancy.

We looked at data from the City Health Dashboard, an online resource that provides city and neighborhood level data on 37 actionable measures of health outcomes, health determinants, and health equity for the 500 largest US cities, to explore how life expectancy and economic measures move together across neighborhoods within the city.

In neighborhoods where life expectancy is longer, there are fewer children living in poverty:

In neighborhoods where life expectancy is longer, the unemployment rate is lower:

While these data can’t tell you that one measure causes the other, they provide important context for our policies and programs aimed at addressing these issues, which is a critical component of any successful improvement in health outcomes. In order to reduce health gaps, barriers must be eliminated that limit an individual’s ability to access good jobs with fair pay, obtain quality education and housing, and live in a safe environment, to name just a few.

Data from the Dashboard combined with the data we collect locally from the Wellness Score aids OCCHD and our partners in determining which areas have the greatest need, as well as which determinants have the greatest impact on health.  This data-driven approach allows our agency and many others in the community to direct planning and development strategies in a targeted, efficient, and effective manner.

Looking Beyond Oklahoma City

These trends in life expectancy are not unique to Oklahoma City; gaps in health among different groups of people are persistent and increasing across the nation.  Cities are addressing these complex issues from different perspectives and using innovative strategies to move the needle. There is so much we can learn from our peers in other local health departments and leverage here in Oklahoma City.

The City Health Dashboard allows users to compare health outcomes and factors that influence health with other self-selected cities. We were able to use the Dashboard’s Compare Cities feature to identify 3 peer cities with a similar population size and located in the same region as Oklahoma City: Denver, CO, El Paso, TX, and Albuquerque, NM. El Paso has an average life expectancy of 79 years, compared to 76 years in Oklahoma City. And the difference between the neighborhoods with the longest life expectancy and shortest life expectancy is 12.2 years – smaller than the gap of 18 years that we see in OKC.*

Armed with this information, we can explore how El Paso has addressed issues of health and its drivers in their communities. In looking to a peer city with better life expectancy outcomes, we may be able to set more realistic goals, target our resources, and more effectively drive change on this issue. OCCHD is committed to achieving health equity for everyone in Oklahoma City and making it a place where we all can thrive.

*****The Dashboard provides data at the census tract level which differs from the OKC Wellness Score report which uses zip codes. A census tract roughly corresponds to a neighborhood, but it does not always align with neighborhood boundaries. Learn more about census tracts here.

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