Why a localized approach matters

By Sandy Doughton, grant development manager

If your doctor only had one number they could choose from to best predict your health what would it be? Would it be your HbA1c level, cholesterol, weight, or complete blood count? What if we could rule out all medical tests, then what would this number be? As it turns out, your zip code number, or where you live, is the greatest predictor of how long you'll live.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed income data and mortality rates for the U.S. population using federal income tax records and Social Security records for every individual from 1999 through 2014. The study titled "The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States" found that the richest American men live 15 years longer than the poorest men while the richest American women outlive the poorest women by 10 years.

Not only does the income gap play a role in longevity, but also this research lifts up the significant role that geography plays in predicting one's lifespan. The study revealed that people who live in poverty have even shorter lives in places that lack resources. For example, low-income Americans who live in San Francisco are predicted to live three years longer than someone with the same income in Detroit. Why? Comparing the two cities, San Francisco is far more environmentally friendly; it is surrounded by parks, less air pollution, strong smoking bans as well having more affluence and higher education than Detroit.

Where we live matters. Our zip code determines where we have access to opportunity structures: access to quality schools, role models, transportation, environmental quality, healthy foods and more. We know from the Social Determinants of Health, that 50 percent of what makes us healthy boils down to social and economic factors and the physical environment.

Many of the communities Methodist Healthcare Ministries serves in our 74-county service area, especially the rural areas, are under-resourced and shoulder significant health disparities. This same study found that Nueces County, home of Corpus Christi, has one of the lowest life expectancy outcomes for the poor. In Nueces County, the life expectancy for low-income residents is 76.6 years – nine years less than someone who is rich in the same county. Another way to put this in perspective, the New York Times called this gap in Nueces County "roughly equivalent to the difference in life expectancy between an average man in the United States and one in Somalia."

The role of geography is central to Methodist Healthcare Ministries' localized efforts. From health services, community engagement, philanthropic investments, spiritual connections and community education, this study amplifies the importance of place-based initiatives. For example, Methodist Healthcare Ministries is hard at work in the Coastal Bend region – building relationships, meeting with staff and partners, attending coalition meetings, and gathering information to better understand health care issues facing the community. Our team is listening for the differences and similarities across the region, from rural communities like Premont and Palacios to the urban area of Corpus Christi.

As we do this work, our team is learning more about existing collaborative efforts such as the First Thursday Community Meeting in Taft and the Homeless Issues Partnership in Corpus Christi. We are also exploring the potential of new collaborative opportunities. Let this study remind us all of the critical importance of closing the gap on health disparities in under-resourced areas. Through collaboration and the hard work of caring servants, together we can – and will – make our communities healthier.

Read more about the study in The New York Times article, "The Rich Live Longer Everywhere. For the Poor, Geography Matters." The article includes an interactive feature where you can explore the life expectancy in different counties throughout the U.S. 

Sandy Doughton is the Grant Development Manager for Methodist Healthcare Ministries' Community Engagement team. One of the team's projects is providing technical assistance to community partners in Methodist Healthcare Ministries' service regions, ranging from grant-writing, vetting grant opportunities, supporting collaborative funding initiatives and sharing information about development resources.