Project updates, commentaries, events and news about health across the nation from the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps team.

Health factors, life expectancy often go hand-in-hand

Thursday, June 16, 2016

New life expectancy maps recently released by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Society and Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) show us that babies born only a few miles apart face vastly different chances of living a long and healthy life.  A Kentucky map highlights a four-county stretch where life expectancy can differ by as much as eight years. Similarly, a map of life expectancy in a six-county stretch along U.S. Rte. 82 across northern Mississippi can differ by seven years. 

Why are babies born minutes away from each other likely to lead such different lives?

No single factor alone can explain differences in life expectancy, but data from the 2016 County Health Rankings shows us that counties that are close geographically can actually be far apart when it comes to how well and how long people live. This is about more than what happens in a doctor’s office; it’s also about unemployment, children in poverty, physical inactivity, and a variety of other factors that all influence health.

To show how health factors and life expectancy go hand in hand, researchers at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (UWPHI) developed charts (see below charts for KY and MS) comparing factors such as adult smoking, physical inactivity, teen births, children in poverty, and unemployment among the counties highlighted in these maps. The charts are striking. For example, in Kentucky, 50 percent of children live in poverty in Wolfe County, where the life expectancy is 70 years, compared to 24 percent in Fayette County, where the life expectancy is 78 years. And in Mississippi, the unemployment rate is 13.3 percent in Sunflower County, where life expectancy is 71 years, versus 7.5 percent in Oktibbeha County, where life expectancy is 78 years.

The good news is that efforts are underway to tackle the several factors that impact health. According to VCU, here are few examples:

  • In Kentucky, the Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program continues to partner with local school districts to protect youth from tobacco exposure through the 100 percent Tobacco Free Schools program. This program provides guidance to local school districts that wish to reduce tobacco use among the student and staff populations.
  • After many years as the state with the highest rates of childhood and adult obesity in the country, Mississippi leaders have updated nutrition standards for school meals, set specific requirements for physical education, and engaged faith-based communities to encourage congregations and families to prepare healthy meals and integrate physical activity into everyday life.

Community leaders who want to improve health are not alone. Tools from our Roadmaps to Health Action Center, including community coaches, can assist communities in their efforts to address some of the issues that contribute to shorter life spans. Our What Works for Health online database offers information on more than 370 evidence-informed policies, programs, and system changes that can improve health.

The latest maps are part of a series that includes Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, the Inland Northwest, Las Vegas, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Richmond, Raleigh/Eastern North Carolina and Tulsa. In the coming months, more maps will be released for selected cities and rural communities across the country. 

View all the maps at and join the conversation on Twitter using #CloseHealthGaps.