by Jenny McCoy
Ten years ago, longtime Colorado resident Georgina Chávez-Vasquez didn’t feel safe in her western Denver neighborhood. Her car was stolen from her driveway as she ran inside while running the engine to warm it on a cold winter day. She said she feared the police after her brother had a bad experience with officers, and she heard gunshots nearby multiple times a year.
So, the first-generation immigrant from México, then a single mother of two, moved a couple miles away to the Greenbriar-Cloverdale neighborhood of Lakewood. There, Chávez-Vasquez says she found quieter, cleaner streets, fewer gunshots, and more opportunities to become civically engaged.
Another perk to her new address that Chávez-Vasquez, 42, didn’t realize at the time: Residents in her particular census tract of Lakewood (#118.03) have an average life expectancy of 79.4 years, about a year and a half higher than those in her prior neighborhood. Even more striking: If she had chosen a residence just half a mile northeast, she would have landed in a census tract (#45.03) where the average life expectancy is far less, at 71.7 years.
“I’ve had to build [success] on my own and that’s a drive most immigrants have — to come and work as much as possible. Sometimes, we put our health to the side. It’s an anxiety that you just want to do as much as possible for your future generations.”
gaps in life expectancy—both in Chávez-Vasquez’s pocket of the Denver metro area and in other neighborhoods across the country—were revealed by new census tract-level data released last September as a joint effort of state vital records offices, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
The average life expectancies, which RWJF implemented into an interactive online tool, are based on state death records for 2010 to 2015 and population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, reflecting both the people who have lived in a particular census tract since birth and those who moved there later in life.
The data, known as the United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP), provide for the first time public access to life expectancy rates at the census tract level, focusing on small geographic areas (containing about 4,000 people on average) to reveal more granular population-health outcomes.
County-level information, though helpful in identifying broader trends, “doesn’t take into account what is happening in neighborhoods in terms of segregation, opportunity and conditions,” said Don Schwarz, a senior vice president at RWJF who helped initiate the project. “Since conditions get shaped pretty locally, they affect people locally.”
Colorado, on average, has a life expectancy of 80.5 years, nearly two years higher than the national average of 78.6 years. Yet what stands out is the variability across the state, said Kirk Bol, manager of the Registries & Vital Statistics Branch of the Center for Health & Environmental Data at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE). Bol served on the steering committee for the USALEEP, and also helped CDPHE utilize the results in an interactive, Colorado-specific visual.
That interactive map, known as the Community Health Equity Mapping Project, allows Coloradans to input their address to see life expectancy results (plus other measures of health; more on those below) for their specific census tract and compare them to others across the state.
Within Colorado, residents can expect to live anywhere from 67.3 years (a tract near Sloan Lake in the Edgewater neighborhood of Jefferson County) to 89.5 years (the one and only tract in Cheyenne County)—a difference of more than 22 years. As revealed in the data, communities just miles apart from each other—or even those separated by a single street—can have dramatically different life expectancies.
“It’s very eye-opening,” said
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