Zip Code and Life Expectancy – How They are Connected, and Why They Shouldn’t Be

If asked to predict life expectancy, you might think to factor in genetics, habits, gender, or even profession. But a strong determinant of life expectancy is simply a five-letter zip code. 

The average life expectancy in the United States of America is 77 years old, but there is significant variation in that average if you look at individual neighborhoods. Many factors cause this variation but dwindle mainly to some zip codes’ socioeconomic and racial disadvantages. The data shows that life expectancy gaps in neighborhoods within the same city can be as drastic as 30 years. So how can being born just a few blocks apart mean the difference between an average life span of 60 years versus 80 years? 

Access to healthy food, medical care, stable jobs, quality education, and safe housing is not equitably distributed or available across all neighborhoods. Notably, cities with more significant gaps in neighborhood life expectancy tend to be the same cities with more significant racial segregation rates. The socioeconomic status of the individuals living in these various neighborhoods also plays a key role. Residents of low-income communities are more likely to develop chronic health conditions and be less healthy than their higher-earning counterparts. 

Like with everything in life, statistics and averages do not have to define an individual. But if we are to foster health equity, we must not put the burden of defying these averages on the individual. The solution to this problem is not a simple one. It is certainly not as simple as expecting people in neighborhoods with low life expectancy to move. Aside from being cost-prohibitive, the bottom line is that people should not have to move to have equal opportunities for long and healthy lives. We must, as a society, create equitable opportunities for health and well-being regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or geography.