Geography Makes a Difference in Life Expectancy

NJ Spotlight News | July 21, 2016 | Health Care
A new analysis finds children born just a few miles apart can have more than a decade difference.

By Briana Vannozzi

In our state’s capital city, it’s just a short road to large gaps in health disparities. A new analysis finds children born just a few miles apart can have more than a decade difference in their life expectancy.

“Trenton is in a lot of ways similar to a lot of the other cities across the country and I think that’s one of the things that drew us to doing a map here,” said Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Research Associate Matthew Trujillo.

Researchers with Virginia Commonwealth University — with funding through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — crunched the data. In some cases, people living just two train stops away — Princeton Junction to Trenton — had a life expectancy difference of 14 years.

“Broadly what I think the maps show across communities is that a lot of the factors that influence health are what we call the social determinants of health — these are factors that kind of go beyond the health care space,” Trujillo said.

Well known factors like education, housing and transportation. The map shows a wide range in some less expected areas, too. There’s an eight-year difference for residents of Lawrenceville compared to those in Ewing.

“We know from our community health needs assessment that we completed in December that 55 percent of Trenton families find it difficult to live a healthy lifestyle in Trenton, 58 percent say it’s a difficult place to raise a family and raise children,” said Trenton Health Team Executive Director Greg Paulson.

Community organizations like the Trenton Health Team have been working together to try and close the gap.

“We, for example, deliver the Faithful Families Eating Smart Moving More curriculum, which is a curriculum delivered in faith-based institutions around healthy lifestyle choices and healthy eating. Novo Nordisk is funding a program working in the school system and after school programs focusing on reducing the incidence of diabetes and obesity in Trenton’s elementary schools,” Paulson said.

Part of the challenge in closing the gap is that it takes more than just telling people to eat healthy or quit smoking. Community leaders have to create an environment that assists people with living a healthy lifestyle.

At Isles, a 35-year-old nonprofit, Trenton residents can get work training, education and financial support.

“Our goal is to try and help development happen in places that really need it, but also do it in a way that would restore the environment,” said Isles President Martin Johnson.

As supermarkets have fled the city, Isles is growing thousands of pounds of food at over 70 sites. And they teach neighbors how to grow their own.

“This isn’t just a Trenton issue anymore. Poverty is not respecting municipal boundaries. So we’ve got throughout this state, older suburbs that are challenged that are seeing some of the same dynamics that started to occur 30 years ago in our inner cities,” Johnson said.

“We had many parents who actually stood up and said, ‘You know what? I’d love to feed my children healthier, but I don’t know how to cook a zucchini. Can you teach me what that even is?’ And so we started to recognize we can work hard at trying to break down the BMI of kids in the city, but they don’t buy the food. Their parents buy the food. So if we’re going to change the culture, we have to begin to look at how we change the culture of health in the city,” said Trenton YMCA CEO Samuel Frisby.

A few years ago stands were few and far between. Farmers markets are now a staple in the city.

“When you look around this farmers market, yes you see healthy produce and healthy food, but you also see our mobile van here which helps people take their blood pressure screenings,” Frisby said.

Though the numbers are stark, community organizers say it will only shine a light on the dark corners where reinvestment is needed most.