Your community influences whether you live or die

There are certain choices and characteristics that are generally accepted as lifespan indicators; whether or not you smoke cigarettes, how often you visit the gym, your family’s medical history. Surprisingly, a new piece of research just released by Penn State says that the community you live in plays a pretty big role in how long you’ll live as well. 

Unfortunately, if you live in a town with lots of fast-food restaurants, your lifespan may be shortened. The research team identified three prominent community factors that appear to shorten one’s lifespan: a high number of fast-food joints, lots of extraction-industry jobs located in the community (coal mining, oil & gas extraction), and high population density.

Researchers from Michigan State University and West Virginia University also collaborated on this project. 

“American life expectancy recently declined for the first time in decades, and we wanted to explore the factors contributing to this decline. Because of regional variation in life expectancy, we knew community-level factors must matter,” comments lead study author Elizabeth Dobis, a postdoctoral scholar at the Penn State-based Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development (NERCRD), in a press release. “By analyzing place-based factors alongside personal factors, we were able to draw several conclusions about which community characteristics contribute most strongly to this variation in life expectancy.”

What the researchers found

The research team analyzed over 3,000 U.S. counties. On a county-by-county basis, they looked into how lifespan projections made in 2014 have changed in comparison to a 1980 baseline. Along the way, they also utilized a complex statistical model to measure how a dozen “community factors” influenced these projected lifespan differences between 1980 and 2014.

These community factors included local health care access, the number of fast-food restaurants, access to healthy food, population growth and density, employment by industry, social capital (friendships & bonds among residents), and urbanization. The research team also made sure to control for more personal variables like sex, race, education level, alcohol habits, and obesity.

In comparing 1980 and 2014 life expectancies, those personal factors largely accounted for the fluctuations between decades. However, they didn’t account for all of the differences. Three community elements stuck out as particularly influential when assessing a community’s life expectancies. 

“When we controlled for historical life expectancy, we found three additional community factors that each exert a significant negative effect–a greater number of fast-food restaurants, higher population density, and a greater share of jobs in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction,” Dobis says. “For example, for every one percentage point increase in the number of fast-food restaurants in a county, life expectancy declined by .004 years for men and .006 years for women.”

While that may not sound all that significant at first, those seemingly minuscule numbers can ramp up quickly. For instance, a 10% increase in fast-food restaurants within a community means a 15-20 day shorter lifespan among every local man, woman, and child. If fast-food restaurants in a community were to double, that would cause a 150-200 day shorter lifespan among residents. 

Besides fast food, just a 1% increase in a county’s number of mining, oil, gas, and quarrying jobs was estimated to decrease residents’ life expectancies by 15 days for men and 22 days for women.

Well, what about positive community factors? Surely there must be some communal elements that help people live longer. Perhaps predictably, communities with easy access to quality doctors, a high level of social cohesion, and a growing population were shown to promote longer lifespans.

“We were surprised by the strong positive contribution of social capital to life expectancy within communities,” says NERCRD Director & co-author Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural economics and regional economics at Penn State. “Places with residents who stick together more on a community or social level also appear to do a better job of helping people in general live longer.”

“Another interesting finding was that lower population density, or living in more rural areas, is associated with higher life expectancy,” Goetz adds. “This suggests that living in large, densely-settled metropolitan areas, with all of their amenities and other advantages, comes at the expense of lower life expectancy, at least in a statistical sense.”

You’re probably reading all of this with your own town or city in mind and wondering how it stacks up. The study’s authors actually named some areas in the U.S. with particularly low and high life expectancies. The Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota were given the notorious distinction of having “exceptionally” low life expectancies, as were the arctic and interior regions of Alaska, the area surrounding the Mississippi River in the deep south, and the Appalachian regions of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Meanwhile, four “hot spots” were named with exceptionally high life expectancies: the Northeast stretching from Philadelphia to New England, southern Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas, one unnamed portion of Colorado, and another region stretching from central Idaho to the upper Rocky Mountains.

The full study can be found here, published in Social Science & Medicine.