Choosing the Right Community Could Help You Live Longer


Where you live very well could affect how long you live, a new study suggests.

The study was led by Anita Arora, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation clinical scholar at Yale University, and published by Health Affairs. The study focused on the level of well-being in a community and how it related to the differences in life expectancy across the United States.

Flickr Image Courtesy: slgckgc, CC BY-SA 2.0
Flickr Image Courtesy: slgckgc, CC BY-SA 2.0

Well-being measured the general physical health of a county’s population, levels of emotional health, life satisfaction, optimism and security. For example, aspects such as whether the participants felt safe and had access to housing and health care were reviewed. The study found that counties’ well-being scores were related to life expectancy.

“We see this substantial variation in life expectancy in the U.S., and it’s not just determined by socio-demographic factors,” Arora said to WebMD. “It’s also how people feel, how happy they are, whether they have basic access to things like safe housing.”

The factors of a person’s surroundings can affect them in many ways, she said. For example, if someone isn’t able to access a place to exercise or to buy healthy food, they could find it hard to follow a healthy lifestyle.

The study used data from nationally representative telephone survey of U.S. adults in over 3,000 counties. Well-being scores for the counties were based on residents’ responses to questions about physical and emotional health, lifestyle habits, work environment, life satisfaction, and more.

For every one standard deviation, or 4.2-point increase, in the county’s well-being score, life expectancy rose by almost two years for women and two and a half years for men. The average life expectancy in different counties varied, with the study finding around 73 to 85 years for women and 64 to 82 years for men. A county’s well-being score and life expectancy had a direct correlation, regardless of racial makeup, poverty or education levels.

Noreen Goldman, a professor of demography and public affairs at Princeton University, said the findings are not surprising.

“We know that for individuals, these same factors are related to life expectancy,” said Goldman, who was not involved in the study. “What’s not clear, is this: Does where you live matter over and above your individual characteristics?”

Arora said that while the study doesn’t answer Goldman’s question, it’s easy to see how a community can either limit or support people’s ability to be healthy. Researchers from the University of Kentucky College of Public Health found that “preventable deaths” declined in U.S. communities that created health-promoting programs.

That study, published in the same issue of Health Affairs, looked at 16 years of data. Preventable deaths were considered to be infant deaths and deaths linked to conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and the flu.

Officials in the communities worked with local organizations such as hospitals, employers and faith-based groups to design programs that address local health issues. Laudan Aron, a senior fellow who studies social welfare issues at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., said staying healthy involves more than the individual.

“The things health professionals ask people to do may not be practical for them to implement,” said Laudan, who wasn’t involved with either study. “The steps that can improve health and well-being do not only play out at the individual level. There’s a collective responsibility, too.”