Life expectancy swings wildly between Michigan neighborhoods

Christine MacDonald, Sarah Rahal and John Barnes
The Detroit News
Barbara Burns, 86, of Detroit, proudly shows off the wedding picture of her daughter, Marilyn Taylor and her son-in-law Deniene Taylor.

Life expectancy in Michigan ranges from almost 91 years in an East Grand Rapids neighborhood to just 62 in one Detroit area, new research shows.

That's a nearly 29-year difference, according to the data from the National Center for Health Statistics that shows just how much a neighborhood can foretell length of life. 

The research drives home dramatic differences in anticipated lifespans of Michigan residents based on geography, even among people who sometimes live just across the street. Statewide, life expectancy is 78.2 years.

The numbers are “incredibly sad … but not surprising,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, director and health officer for the Detroit Health Department. “People’s life expectancies are short for many reasons."

Among the starkest disparities are adjacent neighborhoods near East Grand Rapids, where there is a life expectancy gap of 17.6 years. Significant life span gaps also can be found most famously along the border between the east side of Detroit and Grosse Pointe, but also in more surprising areas, such as Oakland County's Rochester Hills. 

At the foot of Wealthy St in East Grand Rapids, the Grand Rapids Yacht Club occupies a section of the bank of Reeds lake.

The data is the first to determine life expectancy by census tracts, smaller geographies than the ZIP code or county-level data produced in the past. Researchers used six years of death records and demographic data to create a longevity estimate for nearly every tract in the country.

The Associated Press analyzed life expectancy and demographic data for 65,662 census tracts, which are geographic areas that encompass roughly 4,000 residents. The AP found that certain demographic qualities – high rates of unemployment, low household income, a concentration of black or Native American residents and low rates of high school education – affected life expectancy in most neighborhoods.

INTERACTIVE MAP (for mobile and app users): Local life expectancy - VIEW MAP

An increase of 10 percentage points in the unemployment rate in a neighborhood translated to a loss of roughly a year, the AP found. Income, race and whether residents had health insurance were also factors, according to the analysis. 

The life span difference among close neighbors could point away from some explanations, such as limited access to fresh foods, because those neighbors would likely have the same access, said Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit.

"Income and education become quite critical," Metzger said.

In Kent County, a sharp divide

A thin strip of concrete marks where Wealthy Street stops being so wealthy.

On one side, the red cobblestones of Grand Rapids’ eclectic Eastown neighborhood stretch west toward downtown. On the marker’s other side, Wealthy Street enters old money East Grand Rapids. “A better place to live,” the sign says.

Here, like so many places, it does matter which side of the road you live on.

Residents in the northern part of Eastown have a life expectancy of 73.2 years; next door in East Grand Rapids' northern portion, they can expect to reach 90.8.

Eastown is a bohemian oasis. Seattle-style coffee was brewed before Starbucks arrived. Cross-cultural cuisine is popular. There are used-book stores, boutiques, a refurbished theater and a college town vibe. Eastown has been called the Greenwich Village of Grand Rapids.

Residents are also younger, poorer, more diverse and less likely to have health insurance.

Nine percent of residents in the northern section of Eastown are without health insurance; just 1.6 percent are without in the East Grand Rapids area, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2011-15. The median household income is $62,150 in that section of Eastown; it is $108,500 farther down Wealthy Street.

One recent morning, three young women settled into the one open table at Wealthy Street Bakery. The air is warm from pastries and lattes and the people are wired -- from both the Wi-Fi and the caffeine.

Esther Hansen, 23, and her new friends are apartment hunting.

Hansen is a nurse technician at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and studying upper-elementary education at Grand Valley State University. Both her parents recently lost their jobs. She does not have health insurance.

“It’s hard. I don’t make a ton,” she said. She’ll choose “the cheapest option” when her benefits begin in January. “I just know it’s a struggle for a single person to find affordable health insurance."

Taylor Davis (right), Katie Johnston (center), and their new roommate, Esther Hansen chat in the Wealthy St. Bakery in 'East Town' Grand Rapids.  The trio met online and were out apartment hunting.

Drive down Wealthy Street perhaps four minutes east and arrive at Gaslight Village, the heart of one of the state’s wealthiest communities. Reeds Lake is just down the road. So is the Grand Rapids Yacht Club.  Spectrum Health’s Blodgett Memorial Medical Center is an anchor. The city is an old money enclave.

Weldon and Karen Schwartz have lived here for 24 years. He is a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer. After retiring, the couple moved to East Grand Rapids on the advice of friends. They plan to move soon into a retirement community nearby.

“We definitely want to stay in this area,” said Weldon Schwartz, 79. He served in the military, has always had good benefits, and worries about those who live down the road. Schwartz has been cited for his pro bono work after his first retirement to work for cases involving children in less than ideal situations.

Weldon and Karen Schwartz of East Grand Rapids chat outside a grocery store in "Gas Light Village".

“The young people have such debt,” Schwartz said. “College tuition was high in our day. It’s obscene now.” He wonders how an economy can grow if young people cannot afford homes, if health insurance is not affordable.

Shopping nearby is Marilyn Muma, who lives in the same Eastown home where she was born, a block from Aquinas College.

The area was once rougher around the edges, she said. This day she leaves her 3-year-old golden retriever, Rocky, in her unlocked, open-windowed truck while she picks up groceries in Gaslight Village.

“It’s amazing to see the neighborhood turning,” said Muma, 66, of the Eastown community that is becoming younger.

Still, she sees lower income as a significant reason for shorter life spans.

Life expectancies in her neighborhood are about 18 years less than where she shops; household incomes are nearly $50,000 less.

Nearly 1 in 10 people are without health insurance. Less than 2 in 100 are uninsured the next neighborhood over, according to the census.

Muma's sister died of cancer the night before. Her sibling had money and insurance, but Muma believes insurance issues contributed to her death.

“If you don’t have money, if you don’t stay up on preventative care, it’s going to get you,” she said.

Rochester Hills disparity

Rochester Hills is among Metro Detroit’s more affluent cities, with incomes that are higher than normal and poverty well below average levels.

Among its attractions is the 200-acre former state park Bloomer Park, with a cricket field, sledding hill and velodrome. The park was named after former lawyer and Dodge Motor Car Company chairman, Howard Bloomer, who donated 47 acres.

Bloomer Park constitutes the northern portion of a census tract with an unusual distinction – the anticipated life expectancy is 74 years, making it an island surrounded by areas with higher-than-average expected lifespans.

Twisted Oak Wine, Spirits and Craft Beer convenience store employee Rebecca Jendo, left, of Troy, shares a laugh with regular customer Carl Peterson, right, 81, of Rochester Hills.

It marks the state's third-largest disparity between an individual census tract and its surrounding area – and the highest in Metro Detroit, according to the AP analysis.

In the Rochester Hills neighborhood just across John R Road to the west, for example, the life expectancy jumps to 85 years. Just to the north, in Rochester, it is 82 years.

Carl Peterson, 81, a Rochester Hills resident since 1976, has watched the area change.

“When I moved into our six-acre, 1850 home, there was 45 acres east of us and I used to be able to back up from the driveway onto Avon Road," Peterson said. "Now, it’s turned into a subdivision and I have to wait at least three minutes to get out of the driveway. The whole city is like that.”

Among the housing options in the census tract are Rochester Estates, a mobile home community that dominates the area between Avon Road and Bloomer Park, and Cedar Mill Village apartment complex, just to its east.

The median household income in this portion of Rochester Hills is less than $51,000; across John R Road it jumps to $107,000.

Diane Smith, who lives on John R, said there’s a clear difference.

“I’d say you could easily see the income difference from one side to the other,” Smith said. “The east side has smaller homes and apartment buildings, while the other has private neighborhoods and more lakes.”

These are houses in the John R. and Avon neighborhood in Rochester Hills.


Eighteen percent of the people living in the census tract are without health insurance, compared to 2 percent across John R. This tract is 70 percent white, a lower percentage that neighboring areas.

While it stands out for the contrast between it and neighboring areas, other Oakland County neighborhoods have significantly lower life expectancies. Especially problematic is Pontiac, where in several areas lifespans are 10 years or more below the state average.

This is traffic at John R. and Avon in Rochester Hills.

Leigh-Anne Stafford, Oakland County’s Health Officer, said the data helps to create improvement plans.

“It’s exciting for us," she said, "because now we can focus more on specific cities versus townships or ZIP codes, but this is just one data point,” she said. “We like to layer the data with additional information to create a complete picture of health.”

Oakland County’s Health Department conducted a community health assessment four years ago and created ECHO, Energizing Connections for Healthier Oakland, bringing together 30 organizations to create a community improvement plan.

“One thing we look at is does everyone have access to health care, transportation, access to healthy foods, are they in a food desert or within walking distance of a store and that can cause a big difference in a community,” Stafford said.

Stafford said the data has been “eye-opening” for the department and how it differs from areas in Detroit.

“It varies up to (a) 21-year difference when they’re less than 10 miles apart,” she said. “We really need to look at the disparities that are occurring in those census tracts."

The lowest in Michigan

Of the 10 census tracts with the lowest life expectancy in Michigan, six are located in Detroit.

The lowest in the state is west of M-10 (Lodge Freeway) and south of the Davison freeway, an intersection traversed by an average of more than 200,000 commuters each day.

Abutting the freeways is an area with streets named for Americans with lofty ideals – Rosa Parks, Woodrow Wilson – but where a child today can expect to live only to an age of 62 years. That’s 16 years lower than the present state average and an number the U.S. population first surpassed in 1932, when the nation's collective lifespan was 62.1 years, according to CDC records.

The area has large duplex-style homes, many boarded up or burned out. Few streets have been well kept.

An outlier among them is Glendale Street, which has brick and wood-sided homes with Christmas decorations, a New Wave Christian Church, Cass Community Social Services and a community funeral home.

These are houses on Glendale near 14th Street in Detroit.

Terrance D. Andrews, executive director of Andrews Funeral Home in the Dexter-Linwood neighborhood, said the majority of the 200 clients a year are between 60 and 80 years old.

“I expected the life expectancy around 90 if we take care of ourselves,” said Andrews, 55, who grew up in the neighborhood. “We don’t often see a lot of kids, just a lot of natural causes.”

The median income of the area was $21,806, well less than half that of the state of Michigan.

Andrews said the area started declining after drugs infiltrated the area in the 1980s.

“Drugs peaked off in 1988, and you can see where that went. It deteriorated the neighborhood. I rebuilt the funeral home in 1999 and hoped for a resurrection and it never came,” Andrews said. “We need rec centers, things for people to do and more education.”

In February, Barbara Burns will have lived in her 1922 home on Glendale for 50 years. Burns, 86, already has outlived her neighborhood’s life expectancy and many of her neighbors are seniors.

Burns said the city recently opened a nearby park on Clairmount in the city’s Boston Edison neighborhood, but often ignores her area, where she’s seen no improvement in the past decade.

Barbara Burns, 86, of Detroit, becomes emotional as she points towards Heaven as she talks about how she has lived poor, but she is rich with blessings and love of her family and Jesus Christ.

“Nobody ever comes over here,” Burns said. “It’s a good neighborhood, but not a lot close by. Many just use the area to cut through to Lodge or Davison.”

“There are neighbors here that are older than I am,” said Burns, who lives down the street from the funeral home. “I haven’t had any problems, just the occasional gunshots in the night.

“This was all a Jewish neighborhood when I moved here, with schools all around. Now, they’re all closed. I’ll never leave because this is where I raised my three daughters, who are very successful.”

Burns relies on her daughter to pick her up to grocery shop in Highland Park and take her to church, The House of Prayer, on the city’s west side. Burns was born and raised on the Detroit’s east side with her father, who worked at the Packard Plant and died of a heart attack at age 72. Burns’ mother died of congestive heart failure at age 82, and while she wishes she could reunite with them, she said she’s blessed to have lived long enough to see her four great grandchildren.

Intergenerational poverty has taken a toll on the health of Detroit residents for decades, exacerbated by everything from the city’s history of redlining in housing to a lack of quality education and jobs, said Khaldun, of the city health department. Detroit remained the nation's poorest big city last year, according to U.S. Census estimates released this fall.

“But a lot of this is fixable,” she said. “We have to get upstream … we can’t wait until someone has a chronic disease diagnosis to do something.”

Khaldun said the health department is working on many fronts to change the numbers. One example is launching iDecide Detroit, a network of teen health providers that provide contraception and STD testing. It includes an information hotline, transportation services and after-hour access to health providers.

Preventing teen pregnancy increases the chances kids will graduate from high school, Khaldun said.

Nearly 28 percent of the residents in this neighborhood did not complete high school, a factor in life expectancy. Sixteen percent do not have insurance. Black residents make up 67 percent of the population, according to census data.

“I’ve been near death twice in my life… but you can’t worry about it,” Burns said. “Everything has already been planned out for all of us.

“I don’t think where I lived doesn’t matter how I turned out and how I live. My daughter graduated with a Ph.D., didn’t pay a dime and was the only black woman in her graduating class… that’s not because we lived here and we were poor.”

“My parents weren’t rich and I’m financially a poor person, but rich in so many other ways… rich by blessings."