A recent study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) indicates residents of neighboring Upper Cumberland communities can have differing life expectancy averages.
Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzehner says life expectancy statistics aren’t concrete and can be affected over time.
“That means that where we are in this moment of time is changeable,” Dreyzehner says. “We didn’t get here overnight and we won’t move the needle overnight, but facts are not fate and it’s changeable.”
A new feature on the foundation’s website uses Census data allowing users to find out the average life expectancy based on the communities they live in.
For example, in Cookeville, the life expectancy of residents living near Cookeville High School is just under 76 years. However, those who live near Jamestown Road and Northeast Elementary have a life expectancy of just over 79 years.
Dreyzehner says the difference in communities could simply depend on the conditions of those who live there.
“There is some literature to suggest for some conditions like people with obesity or with substance-abuse disorders,” Dreyzehner says. “There are stronger correlations between the people they associate with – their neighbors and friends – than the people they are related to.”
Dreyzehner says adequate access to healthcare may play a role in life expectancy statistics varying by community. However, he adds it isn’t the main contributor to lower statistics.
“Sometimes people get sick or have certain conditions for which medical care could be lifesaving,” Dreyzehner says. “But the reality is the best evidence that we have is healthcare is only responsible for about 20 percent of our total life expectancy. And the studies usually vary from about 10 to 20 percent.”
Dreyzehner says having access to recreational areas and places for more physical activity can also contribute to some communities having higher life expectancy statistics.
“We know exercise is medicine, and activity is exercise. Ironically, in the wide open spaces of rural [areas], these days people don’t make a living through working the land,” Dreyzehner says. “There’s not a lot of options besides driving to where we need to go. The culture is we drive and we don’t get much activity outside these days. That’s different than what it was 40 or 50 years ago.”
Dreyzehner says infant mortality rates are one of the leading contributors to lower life expectancy statistics.
“Tennessee is currently ranked around 43rd in the United States of babies who don’t make it to their first birthday,” Dreyzehner says. “It’s at a rate of 7.4 per 1,000 babies that are born. That’s a little over 600 deaths per year. By far that is the largest contributor to loss of years of life.”
Cumberland County residents feature the highest average life expectancy age in the Upper Cumberland at just over 77.5 years. Pickett and Putnam Counties are the only other counties above the state average of 76.1 years while the national is 78.6.