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Data, Mapping Project Highlights that Where You Live Influences Your Health

An analysis of mortality data showed that babies born in Oktibbeha County, Miss., are expected to live an average of seven years longer than babies born in Sunflower County, Miss.

(TNS) -- Mississippi's Oktibbeha and Sunflower counties are only separated by a little more than a two-hour drive.

But an analysis of mortality data showed that babies born in Oktibbeha County are expected to live an average of seven years longer than babies born in Sunflower County.

“Where you live influences your health,” said Derek Chapman, the associate director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health that has computed the life expectancies in 21 cities and regions as part of a project to measure the real impact of health disparities. In places like Richmond, Virginia, researchers found 20-year differences between neighborhoods.

“The health differences shown in these maps aren’t unique to one area. We see them in big cities, small towns and rural areas across America,” Chapman said.

There’s no single reason that some communities struggle to match the health of their neighbors, Chapman said.

“Poverty tracks very closely with life expectancy,” Chapman said. “But there’s also associations with crime and poor education.”

While access to health care is a significant factor, it’s not just what happens inside the walls of a clinic, hospital or county health department that has impact. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables, opportunities for physical activity, pollution levels, health literacy and obesity rates all play a role, said Liz Sharlot, director of communication for the Mississippi State Department of Health.

“We know there are so many factors that influence health,” Sharlot said.

The life expectancies aren’t destiny. Individual choices impact a person’s health and life space, Chapman said. But even when individuals are making healthy choices, they are still impacted by community factors they can’t control like pollution levels that could limit their lives.

The goal of the mapping project is to help communities start conversations and think of health more broadly, because decisions about education, transportation and economic development all contribute to community health.

“We don’t have the answers, but we do know where to start,” Chapman said. “If we can improve conditions, we can potentially move the needle.”

Even with its challenges, Mississippi has seen improvements at local and state levels. The rate of overweight and obese children declined between 2005 and 2013. Infant mortality rates have improved.

“It takes collaborations, partnerships and communities all working together,” Sharlot said.

U.S. 82 snapshot

Mississippi has the lowest average life expectancy – 75.1 years – in the nation. Hawaii has the highest at 81.3 years. But there are broad variations within each state.

“When you look within Mississippi, not everyone is doing as poorly,” Chapman said.

Oktibbeha County, with an average life expectancy of 78 years, a year below the national average of 79, ranks in the top 10 of Mississippi’s 82 counties for health outcomes and health factors. Home of Mississippi State University, it has higher employment levels, access to health care, lower rates of teen births, higher educational attainment and fewer children living in poverty.

Sunflower County, with an average life expectancy of 71 years, has high levels of adult obesity, teen births and unemployment. But in recent years, community partnerships with University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Delta Health Collaborative have brought innovative screening and chronic disease management programs to the county.

“These mortality rates are a long time in the making,” Chapman said. “It’s going to take a long time to correct them.”

©2016 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.