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Life expectancy disparity a national blight

Melvin B. Miller | 4/3/2014, 6 a.m.
The life expectancy of its citizens is one measure of determining the standard of living in a country. One would ...
“Maybe we ought to increase our longevity by moving to a more affluent country.” Editor’s note: In Fairfax County, Va., one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., women live to age 85 on average and men to age 82. In McDowell County in W.Va., with a higher concentration of poverty, women live to age 73 on average and men to 64. Photo by Dan Drew

The life expectancy of its citizens is one measure of determining the standard of living in a country. One would expect that the industrialized nations would top the list. However, the United States, the greatest industrial power in the world, is by no means number one. According to the United Nations World Health Organization statistics, the U.S. ranks 35th, behind Iceland, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Costa Rica and Slovenia, and just ahead of Chile and Cuba.

The overall life expectancy in the U.S. is 79.8 years, 77.4 for men and 82.2 years for women. An analysis by the New York Times shows that a longevity gap exists between affluent and financially struggling areas. The report compared Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W. Va.

Fairfax County, located near the nation’s capital, has one of the highest levels of income in the U.S. Median household income is $107,096. Residents have good paying jobs in the U.S. government or the military-industrial complex. By contrast, McDowell County is a former coal mining area in Appalachia. The median household income is only $22,972. The population of both counties is predominantly white, with each having only about 9 percent African Americans.

One of the most shocking aspects of the New York Times story is the difference in life expectancies between the two counties. In Fairfax County men have an average life expectancy of 82 years, and women, 85. In McDowell County, the averages are 64 and 73. Men in Fairfax County live about 18 years longer than the men living only 350 miles away in Appalachia.

This should be a major cause of concern. Life expectancy in affluent Fairfax County is equivalent to that of San Marino, Iceland, Italy and Australia, ranking 6-9 instead of 35, the U.S. level. However, life expectancy in McDowell County is equivalent to that of Iraq, which ranks only 131.

The conclusion is clear. The global longevity ranking of the U.S. is deflated to an unacceptable level by the impact of poverty. All Americans should be concerned when poverty is significant enough to take so many years away from the lives of their fellow citizens.