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New research finds that Metro Detroit’s poor not only live shorter lives than other low-income people in the nation’s big cities, but Detroiters die up to 16 years sooner than their suburban neighbors.

Wayne County had the lowest life span for a poor 40-year-old — 77 years — among the nation’s largest 100 counties, according to the Health Inequality Project, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April. The Metro Detroit area also ranked at the bottom — 95 out of 100 — for the life spans of its poor, which was nearly 78 years.

Low-income people fare better, in Queens, New York, where they are expected to live to age 83, Florida’s Miami Dade County, where they live to 81 and Chicago’s Cook County, 80.

And inside Wayne County alone there are dramatic differences in how long residents live depending on their ZIP code, according to a study released Thursday by the Virginia Commonwealth University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In Northville Township, a baby born today is expected to live to age 85, while 30 miles away, life expectancy in Detroit’s Cass Corridor is as low as 69 years, a 16-year gap.

“We’ve got 69-year expectancy (in parts of Detroit.) That is just a little bit worse than in Russia and North Korea,” said Derek Chapman, associate director for research at the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health. “That is a sobering look at where our country fits.”

Researchers say the link between a person’s income and how long he or she lives is well established, while the recent studies show a web of other factors can influence life spans, including geography, especially when comparing those of similar economic means. The Health Inequality study separated people into four income categories based on Social Security records, with those making less than $28,000 at the bottom and people making more than $99,000 at the top.

Experts couldn’t say exactly why the life span of Metro Detroit’s poor lags much of the nation, but suggest high levels of obesity, smoking and limited access to mass transit, medical facilities, healthy food and places to exercise could all play a role, as could the stresses from poverty, crime and low education levels.

Neighboring discrepancies

The researchers in the Virginia Commonwealth report found that even bordering ZIP codes can have huge gaps, such as the 11-year difference along the infamous divide between the Grosse Pointes and Detroit. Residents in Grosse Pointe’s 48230 ZIP code live to age 81 on average compared to the neighboring 48215 ZIP code in Detroit, where the average life span is to age 70.

The gap between average household incomes in those two areas is more than $78,000, with households in 48215 making $21,633 and those in 48203 making $99,714, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“They don’t have the stress the people in Detroit do,” said Ronda Yeley, a 56-year-old Detroiter who lives in the east side’s 48205 ZIP code where the life expectancy is 70 years. “How do you keep your home? How do you make the light bill?”

Yeley was hospitalized this spring with a panic attack, suffered from migraines and was repeatedly vomiting while fighting her home’s tax foreclosure, she said. Her 69-year-old husband James Yeley’s blood pressure skyrocketed during that period, she added. They were able to save their home with help from a nonprofit but are still worried about getting money to fix it up.

It has no running water in the kitchen. They use a garden hose in the basement for a shower. The couple lives on a combined $2,100 a month in Social Security disability payments, of which about $600 goes to medical coverage, they said.

“The power of place is real,” said Chris Allen, executive director of Authority Health, formerly the Detroit Wayne County Health Authority, an agency created by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2003 to strengthen the health care safety net. “The stress on these neighborhoods, it is a chronic stress.

“Some people are just trying to get through the week.”

Detroit’s 48201 ZIP code had the lowest average life span at 69 in Wayne County, according to the VCU data, which looked at state death records. That area includes Midtown, which has seen a development boom in the last several years. Chapman said the study included deaths from 2004 to 2013, which may not reflect recent neighborhood improvements.

The longest life span, 85 years, was found in the 48168 ZIP code, which includes Northville Township and a small part of rural Washtenaw County. The VCU study looked primarily at Wayne County ZIP codes in Michigan.

The Virginia researchers have released similar data for a dozen other large U.S. cities. In those studies, the largest gap among a city’s ZIP codes — 20 years — was in Philadelphia. Detroit and Las Vegas were second, with up to16 years difference between ZIP codes.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the executive director of the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness, said high diabetes and infant mortality rates are a part of what is driving life spans down in Wayne County. A Detroit News investigation in 2014 found that Detroit is the deadliest city in the United States for children primarily because of high rates of infant deaths and homicide.

El-Sayed said it also is often difficult for residents, particularly seniors, to get to the doctor because of the expansiveness of the city and the limitations of public transportation. Denser areas such as New York with an extensive public transportation system can concentrate services where people live, he added.

Paul Bridgewater, president of the Detroit Area Agency on Aging, said a study by the agency found 20 percent of the city’s elderly don’t have their own transportation and 64 percent live in medically underserved areas.

“We are an urban place that is organized like a rural place,” El-Sayed said. “It’s a double whammy.”

“We are so spread out and we have such a challenge with public transportation. It is really about space and how we built this city.”

NYC touts health campaigns

Researchers with the Health Inequality study say they found that geographic differences in life spans weren’t tied to the percentage with health insurance or an area’s economic decline.

“Life expectancy for low-income individuals is the longest in dense urban areas where a large fraction of residents are college graduates, and in areas with higher per-capita government expenditures,” such as New York and San Francisco, wrote Ben Scuderi, one of the researchers in an email to The News.

Because life expectancy varies among different racial groups, the Health Inequality study’s authors adjusted for race nationally, factoring in what an area’s life span would be if every place had a equal share of whites, Hispanics, blacks and other races.

New York health officials attributed some of that area’s longer life spans for the poor to heavy investments in anti-smoking and obesity campaigns. One well-known example was former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban of super-sized soft drinks in the city that was overturned by the courts in 2014.

The adult smoking rate in Queens, one of the five boroughs in New York City, is 12 percent, compared to Wayne County at 22 percent. Similarly Wayne’s percentage of those considered obese is 34 percent, compared to Queens at 24 percent.

Health officials in Los Angeles said that area also has a strong safety net of publicly funded programs and are trying new techniques, such as working with city planners and redesigning communities to reduce traffic and violence.

The idea is “to make it easier to be physically active, access health food, feel safe when walking,” said Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

“You can have people with the same degrees of poverty, but one is going to experience worse ... health consequences when they don’t have a safety net or other support system,” said professor Steven Woolf, director of the VCU’s Center on Society and Health.

Detroit’s crime rate wasn’t factored into either study, but researchers said it could be a cause, including adding to stress and preventing people from getting out for exercise.

In Michigan, the lowest life spans for the poor were in Genesee and Wayne counties at about 77 years, and the longest were 81 in western rural Barry and Oceana counties.

Metro Detroit’s disparity was evident last week while walking through two ZIP codes: Grosse Pointe’s 48236, where residents are expected to live to 82, and Detroit’s 48203, where the average life span is 70.

“We try to walk four miles a day, five or six days a week,” said Ann Jerome, 71, while on Grosse Pointe Boulevard with her husband, George Jerome, 77, a semi-retired civil engineer.

Both said it’s not surprising that people who live in their community live longer than other Wayne County residents.

“Most Grosse Pointers don’t have the stress a lot of people do,” said George Jerome. “And I think that’s probably due to their financial security.”

About 12 miles away, walking several blocks to the store was tiring for John Ray, on East State Fair.

At 68, he uses a cane, in part because he was injured while working as a city bus driver. The nearest liquor store caught fire this winter and he now walks farther for cigarettes and food basics. He lost his home to tax foreclosure last year, he said, and now rents a room from a woman nearby for $400 a month. With no car, he pays her $10 for each weekly trip to the grocery store.

“I know it’s not good for me, but you have to do something for that stress,” Ray said of his smoking habit.

When told the average life span in the ZIP code is 70, he also said he wasn’t surprised.

“I hope I make it past it,” Ray said.

cmacdonald@detroitnews.com

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