The most detailed study ever shows people in wealthier areas of King County live 14 to 18 years longer than those in poorer areas — an “enormous” gap in life expectancy.
At first glance, King County looks like a pretty healthy place, with life expectancies among the highest in the nation. But a new analysis that zeros in on individual neighborhoods reveals deep disparities in how long people live and the health problems they face.
Men in the affluent, Eastside city of Clyde Hill enjoy an average life span of 86.7 years. The longest-lived neighborhood for women is Bryant, in Northeast Seattle, with an average life expectancy of 88.4 years.
But in a south-central Auburn neighborhood with the county’s shortest life spans, average life expectancy is more than 18 years lower for men and more than 14 years lower for women.
“That’s the spread between parts of West Africa and Europe in terms of life expectancy,” said Chris Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which led the analysis. “It’s just enormous.”
And while the local economy is booming, residents in some parts of King County are suffering and dying from drug overdoses and cancers of the breast, brain and pancreas at rates on a par with those in the least-healthy counties in the United States.
“What this clearly says is that we’ve got a huge spread in the quality of health and lifestyle that people in King County experience, and we shouldn’t accept that,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County.
Disparities in health and life spans have been well-documented across the country and closely linked to income. But the new analysis, published Tuesday in The Lancet, is the first to examine more than 150 health conditions for individual census tracts, which average about 5,000 people. The analysis also covers a quarter of a century, from 1990 to 2014.
Established and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the health metrics institute mainly focuses on improving health statistics and data around the globe, with the goal of evaluating programs that tackle malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases of the poor.
But Seattle Mariners’ CEO and telecommunications billionaire John Stanton, who serves on the institute’s board, suggested that the same analytic approach could be applied at home, Murray said. Stanton and his wife, Theresa Gillespie, put up $300,000 to fund the project, which took 2.5 years to complete.
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“King County was a good demonstration,” said IHME’s Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, who led the team. “We all live here, so it definitely means something to us.”
Zooming in on the county’s nearly 400 census tracts revealed some surprising patterns — including high rates of traffic deaths around Enumclaw, Greenwater and other communities in the county’s more rural, southeastern quadrant.
“That really jumped out,” Duchin said, adding that the cause is not clear.
The new analysis, which combines data from death certificates with statistical methods to differentiate trends from random events, also reveals large swaths in SeaTac, Kent, Federal Way and Auburn where diabetes deaths have increased, while dropping almost everywhere else.
Drug overdose is the only major cause of death that has risen across the entire county over the past 25 years, reflecting the national opioid- abuse crisis.
For the most part, though, the things that kill people don’t vary much across the county. Heart disease, lung cancer, suicide, Alzheimer’s disease, drug overdose and liver disease lead the pack, the analysis found. But people who live in some areas, including Belltown, Downtown, Shoreline, Kent and parts of Auburn, are losing years of life to heart disease at rates more than double the county average, Dwyer-Lindgren pointed out.
Health is affected by a wide range of factors beyond genetics, Duchin said. Socioeconomic status, access to health care, stress, diet, exercise and habits like smoking and drug use all play important roles — and where you live can serve as a rough indicator for some of those factors.
“It’s not the fact that you’re living at a certain latitude or longitude,” Duchin said. “It’s all the other things associated with that neighborhood, like socioeconomic conditions, quality of housing, maybe education levels.”
Having more detailed insight at the neighborhood level will help the county better target programs to improve health, Duchin predicted.
“I think this type of neighborhood information should energize all of us who are concerned not only about health, but equality, to try to make a difference,” he said.
With funding from the Seattle Foundation, a project called Communities of Opportunity is already working to foster food businesses and lure entrepreneurs to SeaTac, Tukwila, Rainier Valley and White Center. The Accountable Community of Health program is focused on improving and streamlining health care provided through Medicaid, while Best Starts for Kids emphasizes early education and support that can have lifelong benefits.
Murray and his team hope to apply the same approach to counties across the country.
“I think it will open up a whole new approach to public health,” he said. “You cannot only identify the disparities, but you can track the trends, and whether policies and programs are actually having an impact.”