Less than three miles separate the vacant lots of Miami’s Overtown neighborhood from the manicured hedges of Brickell Key — a short distance with a big difference in life expectancy for children, according to new research published Wednesday.
The Miami life expectancy map, created using U.S. Census Bureau population data and Florida death records, found that a child reared in Overtown will live an average of 71 years while one raised in Brickell Key can expect to live about 86 years.
That’s among the largest disparities researchers found in Miami-Dade, but there were others, including a 10-year gap between children raised in Aventura, estimated to live to 85, and those growing up in Miami Gardens, where life expectancy is about 75.
In Key Biscayne, the number is 87 — highest in the county — but drops to about 76 in North Miami.
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Why the big gap in lifespans across communities, some within walking distance of each other?
“Neighborhoods matter,” said Derek Chapman, an epidemiologist and associate director for research at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, which created the Miami map with funding from the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Life expectancy represents the average number of years of life at birth that could be expected if current death rates were to remain constant. In Miami-Dade for 2013 and 2014, men had a life expectancy of 79 years while women have a lifespan of about 84.5 years.
Chapman said researchers created the Miami map — part of a larger project looking at 20 communities nationwide — to examine the connections between public health and neighborhood conditions, from job opportunities and education to affordable housing, crime and access to nutritious food.
“There’s more to health than just healthcare,” said Lillian Rivera, a registered nurse and administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County.
To be sure, she said, access to hospitals and doctors and health insurance can have a big impact on public health, and more work remains to identify the specific factors causing such dramatic gaps in life expectancy in Miami-Dade.
But Rivera is encouraged by the number of public-private collaborations committed to creating what she calls “health equity” — from the Miami Children’s Initiative that funds educational opportunities for residents of Liberty City, to the Common Good Initiative spearheaded by the Allegheny Franciscan Ministries to provide scholarships, employment conferences and nutritional counseling in Overtown.
Those programs are among the efforts that have made Miami-Dade a finalist in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual Culture of Health prize, which awards $25,000 to communities making strides in public health policies.
There’s more to health than just healthcare.
Lillian Rivera, Miami-Dade health department
In Miami, city officials have launched a number of efforts aimed at improving quality of life and public health in disadvantaged communities, said Milton Vickers, senior adviser for economic development.
He cited as examples a trolley service that runs through Overtown and provides free rides to supermarkets selling fresh food, and an apprenticeship program that trains unemployed residents to become certified mechanics for heavy machinery.
But Vickers acknowledges that health disparities will take time to correct.
“The problem didn't start two or three or four years ago,” he said. “It's a long-term deal, and to get it to turn around is going to take just as long. But getting the commitment to do that is where you have to start.”
Chapman, the VCU researcher, said he hopes the life expectancy map will motivate Miami-Dade leaders to make a commitment to define health in the broadest possible terms. But he also hopes they will find inspiration in the numbers.
“It’s not impossible to obtain improved life expectancy,” he said, “if it happens just one ZIP code away or just across the highway.”