New maps released today by the Center and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) illustrate that opportunities to lead a long and healthy life can vary dramatically across North Carolina. Along the mostly rural stretch of U.S. Rte. 64 that leads west from Martin County to Wake County, life expectancy can differ by as much as 7 years. Within Raleigh-Durham, babies born in Southeast Raleigh can expect to live an average of 12 fewer years than those born just a few miles up Highway 540.
The maps are the latest in a series developed to raise public awareness of the many factors that shape health, particularly social and economic factors. The Center and RWJF released maps earlier this year that showcased dramatic differences in life expectancy across neighborhoods of large urban centers, such as New York City and Chicago.
The new maps demonstrate that short distances to large gaps in health can occur in big cities, small towns, and in rural areas. These differences in health are rarely due to a single cause, but instead linked to a complex web of factors such as opportunities for education and jobs, safe and affordable housing, availability of nutritious food and places for physical activity, clean air, and access to health care, child care, and social services.
The North Carolina map presents life expectancy by county, while the map of Raleigh-Durham depicts life expectancy by ZIP code (you can access additional life expectancy data on the Raleigh-Durham map here and on the rural map here). They are intended to be “conversation starters,” to support the work of local officials and community organizations and help them understand that there is more to health than merely health care — improving health requires a broad range of players at the table.
Across the U.S., a growing number of health officials and organizations are working to make sure a person’s ZIP code doesn’t determine their future health. For example, in North Carolina, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trusts is investing $100 million over a decade in a dozen rural counties through its Health Places NC initiative. The effort includes two counties featured on the new map, Nash and Edgecombe Counties, where one in 5 adults say they are in poor health. By comparison, in Wake County, home to the city of Durham, one in 10 adults say they are in poor health.
In Nash and Edgecombe Counties, the Trust is working with residents, local government leaders, the school system and the Chamber of Commerce to explore ways to improve residents’ health and expects to be there for up to 10 years, recognizing there is no “quick-fix or easy solution” for improving the health of an entire community.
The maps can be viewed at societyhealth.vcu.edu/maps, along with more detailed information on methods and additional data not included in the maps themselves. In the coming months, 14 additional maps will be released for cities and rural areas across the country. Follow the discussion on Twitter at #CloseHealthGapsVCU_Map_NC-CountyVCU_Map_NC-County