ATLANTA — Life expectancy has much more to do with your zip code than your DNA code, according to researchers.
And here in metro Atlanta, they found your life could be decades shorter than neighbors who live a few miles down the street.
According to researchers at New York University Langone Health, neighborhoods with lower life expectancy experience more stress. A longtime resident of a metro Atlanta neighborhood with one of the lowest life expectancies said she’s seen the impact of that stress firsthand.
"People do whatever they have to, to survive,” explained Jane Ridley, who survived in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville community for 30 years.
She told Channel 2′s Dave Huddleston that’s not easy to do.
"We're not eating right because it's a food desert,” Ridley said. “We're not sleeping good because of the violence we might hear in the neighborhood."
Factors including poor air quality, limited outdoor recreation and limited full-time jobs also contribute. Mechanicsville resident Jason Dozier told Huddleston many people feel isolated.
“It’s been a neighborhood that’s been trying to play catch-up with the rest of the city and the rest of the region for a long time," Dozier said.
NYU Langone looked at heath data for about 500 cities across the US. Data included heart disease, high school graduation rates and overdose deaths. Researchers included 10 Georgia cities in the study, including Johns Creek, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Atlanta and Athens.
Life expectancy rates in metro Atlanta had differences of five, ten, even 20 years depending on the neighborhood. In Buckhead’s Paces neighborhood people lived an average of 87 years, while Mechanicsville residents have a lifespan of 65 years.
"I'm surprised it's 65," Ridley told Huddleston.
"Really? You expected it to be lower?" Huddleston asked.
“Lower,” Ridley said.
Dr. Lorna Thorpe with NYU Langone said they expected to see differences based on income, but there was something else.
“Cities with high variability of life expectancy by neighborhood are also the same cities that are experiencing segregation patterns that push black and Latino families into neighborhoods that have been deprived,” Thorpe said.
That comes as no surprise to Daniel Dawes, Morehouse School of Medicine’s director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute.
“When you go back in time, you realize that underlying the root causes of these inequities are political determinacies," Dawes said.
Those include decades of housing discrimination and government decisions to run interstates through neighborhoods. But how do we fix a 20-year difference in life expectancy? Thorpe said getting this information in the right hands is key.
“Our goal with the city health dashboard is really to put these data in the hands of city policy makers,” Thorpe said.
Georgia Sen. Ben Watson is chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. He said he believes safety nets like Gov. Brian Kemp’s health care waiver plan will help communities such as Mechanicsville.
"In the past there have been problems with racism but I hope that we can put that behind us or at least address it," Watson said.
Ridley said there are still lots of inequities to address, but understanding the cause is an important first step. “When you know something, you can do better,” she said.
Dozier told Huddleston Mechanicsville is more than a data point. He said it's a community filled with people worth fighting for.
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