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The American dream may help the poorest among us live longer. Here's why

Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

For Americans who live in communities where prospects for economic advancement are scant, life is not only bleak -- it's shorter too.

New research has found that people who live in counties with more opportunities to improve their lot in life can expect to live longer than those who live in counties where it's virtually impossible to get ahead.

The "longevity gap" between rich and poor Americans is already well known. Once they reach the age of 40, American men with household incomes in the top 25% can expect to live 45 more years, on average. But 40-year-old men in the bottom 25% have an average life expectancy of just 36 years.

The gap for women is smaller, but still significant. A typical 40-year-old woman in a high-income household can expect to reach the age of 87. That's 5 1/2 years longer than her counterpart at the other end of the economic spectrum.

But that's not the whole story.

The new analysis of U.S. counties links greater social mobility to a smaller longevity gap, as well as a lack of social mobility to a bigger life expectancy gap. In fact, differences in Americans' ability to climb the economic ladder helped account for roughly 20% of the disparity in the length of life, according to the study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine.

 

The findings offer novel evidence that the vitality of the communities in which we live can make a difference in our health and longevity. In places where jobs are scarce, education is poor and ambition is dimmed, residents who should be in the prime of life are more prone to physical and mental illnesses, and are less likely to quit unhealthy habits or seek the help they need to improve their condition.

The result: shorter lifespans.

"The findings underscore the importance of both opportunity and hope," said Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical director of the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center. "We are just starting to realize as a health care community how important emotional well-being is to overall health," added Parekh, who was not involved in the new research.

The implications are raising alarms in a country where the chasm between rich and poor is widening, and where economic opportunity is spread unevenly across regions, among ethnic groups and between metropolitan and rural communities.

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