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In New Jersey, ZIP Code is a Cruel Indicator of Life Expectancy

A new analysis reveals that the difference between living in Trenton and nearby Princeton Junction isn’t just quality of life, it’s 14 years

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When it comes to living a long and healthy life, it turns out that few miles or a few digits in a ZIP code can mean a decade or more. Or 14 years, when it comes to the life-expectancy difference between those who reside in Princeton Junction and those who call Trenton home, according to a new analysis released today.

The news — the work of researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — came as no surprise to local healthcare officials and nonprofit leaders in Trenton. They’ve been working for years to help city residents live longer, healthier lives, by having access to doctors and mental health providers; homes free of lead and other health hazards; options for healthy food at an affordable price; and safe places to play, exercise, and socialize.

Health experts have long known that poverty, access to jobs, and environmental and social conditions contribute to people’s longevity. Scores of data sets show how that plays out, with individuals in low-income communities often suffering higher rates of asthma, obesity, gun violence, and other conditions that can cause their lives to be far shorter than people living in wealthier communities.

The Virginia Commonwealth team has mapped the often-stark difference in life expectancy between neighborhoods separated by just a few miles, or train stops, in cities nationwide, including New York and Philadelphia. RWJF has backed a number of these projects, including the Trenton map, and is now using the graphic illustrations to highlight the gaps in healthcare and opportunity, and to help fuel efforts to reduce these disparities.

“Life expectancy is powerful because it is an easily understandable metric,” explained Gregory Paulson, executive director of the Trenton Health Team, a public-private partnership that runs the city’s Accountable Care Organization, which connects hospitals, doctors, and dozens of local groups to improve health outcomes in the Capital City. Among other things, the group has used data analysis to identify and improve care for high-risk patients who depended on the city’s hospitals for their primary care, reducing emergency room use by 45 percent. Robert Wood Johnson also funds aspects of the THT’s work.

Paulson said a recent survey conducted by the Team, organized in 2006, found that more than half the residents who responded said they still find it hard to live a healthy life in Trenton. “Trenton is trying to redefine itself. And a lot of it has to do with health,” he said, adding, “We still have a lot to do.”

For the Trenton study VCU researchers used population data from the U.S. Census, ZIP code maps, and death data from the New Jersey Department of Health and discovered that those living near the train station in Princeton Junction have an average life expectancy of 87 years, compared to 73 years for residents around the Trenton train station – just two train stops and less than 20 minutes away. Lawrenceville residents were found to live an average of 83 years; Hamilton dwellers 80 years; those in Ewing just 75 years.

“It’s one of those things we already knew,” said Samuel Frisby, CEO of the Trenton YMCA, who helped launch the Greenwood Ave. Farmers Market, just blocks from the train station. “The length of your life – and how well you live your life – is based on zip code.”

In addition to fresh produce, visitors to the urban market can get blood-pressure screenings, enjoy dance classes and bicycle programs, get a free, healthy meal for their children, and connect with other health and welfare services. A DJ spinning salsa music helps attract the largely Latino residents nearby.

“If you are going to shift and create a culture of health, it has to be fun, it has to be convenient,” notes Frisby, who also worked for City of Trenton. “If we know better, we do better – but we have to have access.”

Matthew D. Trujillo, a research associate with RWJF, said Trenton made sense for a study because it was close to the foundation’s headquarters and the region was familiar to many involved and because the disparity between some of its urban neighborhoods and wealthier enclaves nearby clearly illustrated the service gaps. “It’s almost an instinct,” he said, “and then you see the numbers and realize it’s accurate.”

In addition, Trenton made sense because of the impact made by groups -- like the Trenton Health Team, the YMCA, the Greenwood Ave. market, and others — trying to tackle these problems, Trujillo added. That said, it can take many years to make a dramatic difference in life-expectancy numbers.

Another Trenton nonprofit, Isles, has worked since 1981 to try and reduce some of the disparities that harm those living in low-income zip codes. The group retrofits homes to reduce asthma and lead hazards, helped plant more than 70 community and school gardens, and trains high-school dropouts in ways that build personal and job skills, while contributing to the revitalization of their community.

But Marty Johnson, the founder and CEO of the organization, noted that poverty data now shows how the same problems that have traditionally faced Trenton and other urban hubs are showing up in older suburbs, as income levels continue to drop in some bedroom communities around the cities’ edge.

“Poverty is not respecting municipal boundaries,” he said. “We need to look at our work as regional.”

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