By one measure, this is a good place to be poor

Will Grandbois

Your income may have a significant impact on your life expectancy — but less so in the Glenwood Springs area, according to data from researchers at the Health Inequality Project published last week in Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study pulled information from 1.4 billion anonymous tax records from 1999 to 2014 to compare mortality, income and a host of other factors. It found that “the gap in life expectancy between the richest 1 percent and poorest 1 percent of individuals was 14.6 years … for men and 10.1 years … for women.”

Moreover, “inequality in life expectancy increased over time. Between 2001 and 2014, life expectancy increased by 2.34 years for men and 2.91 years for women in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, but by only 0.32 years for men and 0.04 years for women in the bottom 5 percent.”

The study also looked at demographics in a range of “commuting zones” to look at geographic trends. It found that, while the richest quarter of Americans did well just about anywhere, the lowest quarter lived years longer in some places than others.

When the New York Times crunched the numbers for a nationwide graphic, one area stood out: Glenwood Springs.

The race-adjusted analysis of both genders found that 40-year-olds with household incomes below $28,000 in the Glenwood Springs commuting zone — which includes Garfield, Eagle, Pitkin, Summit and Lake counties — could reasonably expect to live to be 83.4 years old. That’s a year and a half longer than New Yorkers in the same position, three and a half years longer than those in Denver and nearly eight years longer than the Pecos area of Texas.

The Health Inequality Project looked at an array of factors to try to explain local variations. Smoking rate, percentage of immigrants, median home value and government spending per capita appeared to have the largest impact.

The Glenwood Springs area falls on the beneficial side of the data in all four metrics, with 20.4 percent smokers to the average 27 percent, 13.4 percent immigrants compared with 11.1 percent nationally and more than twice the average government spending and home values. It also scored well on some of the weaker correlations, including obesity rates, percent of college graduates and amount of exercise.

Although the area trails the rest of the country in Medicare spending per person and has a higher rate of uninsured, the study found the rates statistically almost insignificant.

That may be surprising to some, but not to Grand River CEO Jim Coombs.

“There are four factors that affect a person’s longevity. The health-care system is worth roughly 10 percent. Lifestyle is about 40 percent. Genetics is 30 percent, and 20 percent is public health,” he said.

“Our health-care system in America is built on the idea of rescue mentality. We have the best survival rates for heart attacks and car accidents. We do a great job in those areas.

“In terms of behaviors that impact your life expectancy, we don’t have a health system that’s geared that way,” he added. “As a community, the number one thing we can do to influence people’s lifestyle choices is education.”

The study seems to back up his assertion, noting that “mortality rates across areas among individuals with low socioeconomic status was related to medical causes, such as heart disease and cancer, rather than external causes, such as vehicle crashes, suicide and homicide.”

Even considering the numbers, Glenwood Springs’ success is striking. It could be dismissed as a statistical anomaly from a comparatively small sample size. Indeed, Pitkin, Summit and Lake counties were not included in the county-level data breakdown for potentially that very reason. Eagle County appears to have helped the figures the most, with a low-income life expectancy of 84.3 to Garfield’s still-impressive 82.4.

Coombs thinks there’s more to it than just chance.

“People come out here for the lifestyle,” he said.

That might be particularly true of the lowest income bracket, Coombs theorized, if people are willing to stick it out here despite high costs.

“They’re out there having fun on the slopes, but they’re exercising and reaping the benefits,” he added.

Although the study’s figures suggest only a slightly higher percentage of people who exercised in the past month — 63 percent in the Glenwood Springs area compared with 61 percent nationwide — the figure hardly captures the true frequency and accessibility of outdoor recreation.

“No matter your income here, you have such easy access to get outside and move around,” said Garfield County Public Health director Yvonne Long.

Long also pointed to the government spending figure, which comes to $5,300 per person in the Glenwood Springs commuter zone and $2,800 in Garfield County compared with $2,600 nationally. That translates to programs geared toward seniors and healthy foods, which could improve life expectancy on the public health and lifestyle level.

“Our commissioners are very dedicated and have been very generous with the money that they put back into the communities,” she said.

Still, she cautioned against reading too much into one study.

“It’s really interesting research, but they looked at a pretty narrow set of data values. They didn’t take into account chronic diseases. There’s just so much more to it,” she said. “It looks good for us to have a fairly long living healthy community, but there’s a lot of work we still need to do.”

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