Study: Where you grow up in North Carolina affects your life span

Children born in mountainous Watauga County can expect to live almost 82 years – on par with some of the world’s healthiest countries.

But for those who grow up in rural Swain County, just 140 miles to the southwest, it’s a different world. They can expect to live just 73 years – roughly the same as those born in Cambodia.

A new study by a child advocacy group shows that life expectancies vary dramatically across North Carolina.

The differences appear to hinge on factors that heavily influence health overall, such as poverty rates and access to health insurance and prenatal care, according to study author Laila Bell, director of research and data at NC Child, a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of North Carolina children.

For those born in North Carolina overall, the average life expectancy is 78.3 years, about six months shorter than the nation as a whole.

Children who grow up in Orange County, home to UNC-Chapel Hill and some of the state’s most affluent residents, are expected to live the longest lives – 81.7 years.

Those born in Mecklenburg County can expect to live 80.4 years, the study shows. The same is true for most of the state’s other large, urban counties, including Wake. One likely reason: Both Mecklenburg and Wake counties have lower poverty rates than the state as whole.

Those who live in the mountains of Swain County, where nearly one in four people live in poverty, are expected to have the shortest life spans.

How to extend lives

North Carolina is by no means unique.

“Those kinds of troubling gaps and disparities are similar to what we see in other cities and states,” Bell says.

One of the most extreme examples: New Orleans, where children born in neighborhoods just a few miles apart can have a 25-year difference in life expectancy.

Bell says her study brings some good news: While poverty places “barriers on the pathway to healthy development,” those barriers are surmountable.

Among the things that can help, Bell said, are public health insurance programs that give low-income children access to health care, and preschool programs that help children enter kindergarten ready to learn.

Life expectancies in North Carolina have risen in recent decades, thanks in part to large reductions in infant mortality rates. Efforts to reduce premature births and to educate parents about how to prevent sleep-related deaths were partly responsible for the decline, Bell said.

“When our General Assembly and our communities focus on an issue, they can really make a difference,” she said.

Staff database reporter Gavin Off contributed.

Alexander: 704-358-5060