Life expectancy in Denver varies by as much as 13 years relying on what a part of town you reside in
Sitting next to her husband at a local meeting, Jayla Sanchez-Warren noted that she would answer his questions as soon as he started talking.
Sanchez-Warren, who chaired the older adult community meeting, thought it was fun. The two looked close and optimistic. Both were in their 80s.
After talking to her a little more, Sanchez-Warren remembers the woman who burst into tears. The woman, a Latina, had recently learned that her husband had diabetes. During a previous cooking class, she had essentially been told that the food she had given him – mostly homemade tortillas and beans – made his condition worse.
There were too many carbohydrates and not enough fresh food. The woman thought that because the food was homemade it would be healthier.
“When you don’t have a lot of money, fruits and vegetables are expensive to buy,” said Sanchez-Warren. “It’s a lot cheaper to buy beans and rice.”
The Sanchez-Warren agency is focused on helping people aged 60 and over and providing things like meals, transportation, health and wellness programs, and caregiver support for older adults. The agency serves around 32,000 people in the underground area every year.
Sanchez-Warren said she noticed that people of skin color and low incomes tend to use their services earlier in their lives, if they are in their early and mid-70s, than white or wealthier people. She said that for many of her clients, the council’s programs may be the first time they learn about things like nutrition.
She said many social services focus on children and the elderly, not middle-aged adults.
“That’s a big loophole,” said Sanchez-Warren.
During this void, people can develop bad eating habits, often because they do not have access to information about diet or fresh food. All of this can affect their life expectancy.
A 2018 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment map, the most recent map available, shows life expectancy ranges from 72.8 years in Globeville – the lowest in Denver – to 85.9 years in Hilltop, the highest can. The city-wide average is 79.7 years, which is comparable to the national life expectancy of 80.5 years.
Data source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
What exactly is life expectancy?
Ultimately, according to Kirk Bol, program manager at Vital Statistics, who helps the state health department monitor these types of things, this is ultimately the average number of years a person could expect if they were to spend their entire life in this area.
According to Bol, CDPHE created its card based on census data and death certificates registered with the state health department. Bol said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would seek information from states to get a bigger picture of mortality in the United States
Life expectancy data isn’t exactly broken down by neighborhood, Bol said. It’s actually cut after census data, which are federal geographic tags that Bol said usually includes around 5,000 to 10,000 people. Denver has 144 census areas, many more than the 78 neighborhoods. The census provides life expectancy data for 130 of its 144 areas.
Why are the Denver life expectancy differences so great?
It’s about genetics, access and long-term inequality, said Amy Dore, a professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver whose work focuses on health inequalities and long-term care.
For example, someone who has a full-time job may have better access to transportation because they can afford it, which means it is easier for them to visit a grocery store where they can get fresh, healthy groceries. Someone who does not have reliable transportation may rely more on fast food or groceries from a corner store. Or someone lives in an area with significant environmental pollution, such as high air pollution. Due to historical and current systemic racism, a resident’s race and / or ethnicity often depends on whether they have access to a car, a full-time job, or clean air.
More: Mapping Where Colorado Housing and Health Crises Collide.
“I would look at it as the resources people have to make these decisions,” Dore said. “We’re looking at education. We look at where they live, we look at what they have available, including where they live. Things like infrastructure, we look at built environments and have the safe spaces you think you can partake of in life as we all dream. “
Sanchez-Warren noted that zip codes can be more important than your genetic code when it comes to life expectancy.
“Life expectancy is tied to the standard of living,” said Sanchez-Warren, listing things like access to health care, education and housing. “If you don’t have them, or if you have fewer of them (options), your life expectancy is shorter.”
Dore points to the I-70 corridor and its environmental impact as an example of something that could potentially affect life expectancy. The construction work on the corridor was a major source of stress for the people nearby. They say they learned things like noise pollution and physical vibrations from the project. The residents there even sued the federal motorway administration in 2017 to stop the expansion of the motorway, citing its environmental impact.
The highway runs through Globeville, which has the lowest life expectancy in the city. It’s also one of the poorest and least educated neighborhoods in Denver.
Data source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
Pollution has long struck the area, and a 2014 study by the city found that Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are “more likely to have chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and asthma” than other Denver neighborhoods. (The study also found that the two neighborhoods were closer to air pollution due to their proximity to highways, but the average annual air pollution rate was no higher than other neighborhoods.)
“Outdoor physical activity is also limited in the neighborhoods, as streets and sidewalks are not connected, there is a shortage of goods and services nearby, and concerns about crime and safety,” the study said.
Has COVID-19 Affected City Life Expectancy?
Overall, people are living longer than at other times in history. However, a major public health crisis can affect the numbers. Life expectancy in the US declined in 2015 due to an increase in overdoses and suicides. And the CDC released a report last month showing that average life expectancy in the US fell by one year in the first half of 2020, from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 years in 2020. More than 525,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. More than 6,000 Coloradans have died from the disease.
More: This shape has helped explain the past, present, and likely future of Denver.
It’s too early to say whether deaths from the coronavirus pandemic will affect Denver’s life expectancy. Local data shows that more than 750 Denverites have died either directly from COVID-19 or from the disease. That figure also includes likely cases.
Bol said the state will figure out what impact COVID-19 has had on the state’s life expectancy this spring or summer. Data from 2020 are still being processed.
That work should be completed by May, he said, which could help produce a new estimate of life expectancy for the state and some major counties, including Denver.