New life expectancy data might help create healthier communities

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By LANCE COHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan health officials now have access to national records that will help them examine disparities in life expectancy in different parts of the state.

The U.S. Small Area Life Expectancy Project is the first initiative to measure life expectancy at birth for neighborhoods across the country.  

This data has provided insight into community health and shows that not everyone has the same opportunity to be healthy where they live, said Bob Wheaton, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“There can be big differences between health outcomes even within the same county, so this narrows it down to neighborhoods and communities,” Wheaton said. “From this information we can examine the factors that might be influencing longevity whether it be access to health care, safe or affordable housing, educational opportunities and other factors as well.”

One of the largest problems with previous data is that life expectancy in counties and zip codes is not uniform, said Glenn Copeland, registrar from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics.

“You can move four miles down the road in the same county and life expectancy might drop off by a decade or so,” Copeland said.

The new data are organized by Census tract, which contain neighborhood-sized populations of about 2,500 to 8,000 people.

The average life expectancy in Michigan is 78 years, just short of the national average of 78.8 years, according to the project. Michigan ranks 35th in life expectancy, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The county with the highest life expectancy is Keweenaw County, with residents living to an average of 82.7 years. Wayne County has the lowest life expectancy, 74.46 years. Leelanau , Emmet, Mackinac and seven other counties all have an average life expectancy of over 80 years.

Until now, access to national comparative information has been unavailable. This project was created with the help of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, and the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control.

As a result of a strong interest from public health officials across the country, the U.S. Census began researching and collecting data from neighborhoods across the country, said Wheaton.

With the release of this data, organizations such as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Association for Local Public Health plan to analyze the information and work with local health partners to help people live longer, Wheaton said.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has already been planning a mother infant health improvement plan for the state, said Lynette Biery, director of the department’s  Bureau of Family Health Services.

“We have traveled around the state and held town halls in five different locations to gather input into the strategies that have been mapped out in the plan,” Biery said. “The vision of the plan is zero preventable deaths and zero health disparities.”

Key goals include reducing preterm labor and low birth weight, two of the main drivers of infant mortality, Biery said.

This new wealth of information will allow officials to look closer at which neighborhoods are having the biggest infant mortality problem and help local health organizations use resources more efficiently, Biery said.

Health and Human Services plans to focus resources on populations that have experienced poor health in order to improve birth outcomes, Wheaton said.

This includes partnering with community groups and health employers to ensure that staff members and volunteers are well trained which will improve outcomes and ensure the safety of those involved.