Statistically, I’m already dead.
Or should be. Males from the Appalachian county where I was born suffer a life expectancy of 63.9 years, lowest in the nation, about the same as the male life span in Rwanda.
I’m living on borrowed time.
Stevens Clinic, the little hospital in McDowell County where I was born, has since been converted to a medium security prison, which says something about life in the played-out coal mining communities of southern West Virginia. My chances for a long life were upped considerably when my mother ditched her hard-drinking husband, grabbed me and got the hell out of there.
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Because, in America, geography has become a strong predictor for life expectancy.
Last week, my colleague Daniel Chang applied that theory to Miami. Using U.S. Census data, Dan discovered startling disparities in the expected life span for children from Zip codes only a few miles apart. A child raised on wealthy Brickell Key has a life expectancy of 86 — 15 years more than a kid from Overtown, just 3.3 miles away.
The maladies blamed for the foreshortened lives in minority communities like Overtown would be more familiar to Appalachians than those nearby residents living in Brickell Key, Bal Harbour, Key Biscayne, Coral Gables or Miami Beach, where life expectancies reach into the 80s.
The statistical profile of 89 percent white McDowell County might have come from some urban ghetto. About 37 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, more than half of the children under 18 are from impoverished households. The county’s median family income amounts to less than half the national average. Poverty conspires with self-destructive behaviors to drag down longevity. About 37 percent of the adults smoke. Thirty percent are obese. Diabetes has become rampant. But it has been the alcohol and oxycodone and heroin abuse that has jacked up the premature death rate. Stats collected two years ago indicated that McDowell had the highest fatal drug overdose rate in the nation.
McDowell’s plight is reflected in a study published last fall by two Princeton economists who found that the death rates of middle-age white Americans has been rising, even as rates for other racial and ethic groups have been falling. They attributed the anomaly to an epidemic of opioid and heroin overdoses, to liver disease from alcohol abuse and to suicides.
Yet another study published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association and reported in The New York Times found the poor in Miami were living longer than most of their urban counterparts.
Poor women in Miami live to be 84 years old, longer than New York, Santa Barbara, San Jose or other leading metropolitan areas. Poor men in Miami were also doing well in comparison, living 78.3 years, eighth best among urban communities.
Of course, the study also found that residents of wealthier Zip codes live longer. Their longevity apparently has as much to do with diet and exercise as to access to good healthcare.
Which left me dying to move to Brickell Key. Before it’s too late.