Research Identifies Risk Factors Impacting Life Expectancy


Guest blog from Dr. Boyd Lyles Jr., Chief Medical Officer, Viverae

Recent research from medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine found a 20-year gap in life expectancy across U.S. counties over the past 35 years. A variability in life expectancy has frequently been seen, but not to this degree within the U.S. 

Counties with the lowest life expectancy were in South and North Dakota (inclusive of Native American reservations), followed by eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia. Counties in central Colorado had the highest life expectancy. While a 20-year life expectancy gap may seem troubling, there’s no need to pack up and move.

The study examined three factors that were highlighted from previous studies and shown to contribute to lower or higher survival: socioeconomic and race/ethnicity, behavioral and metabolic risk, and healthcare. When combined, these three factors explained 74 percent of county-level variation in life expectancy.

When considered independently, behavioral and metabolic risk factors explained 74 percent of county-level variation in life expectancy; socioeconomic and race/ethnicity factors 60 percent; and healthcare 27 percent. Interestingly, the study also found that socioeconomic and race/ethnicity factors were largely mediated through behavioral and metabolic risk factors.

Behavioral and Metabolic Risk Factors

Lead author of the study and director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, Dr. Christopher J.L. Murray, reports obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, hypertension, and diabetes made up the behavioral and metabolic risk factors that explained 74 percent of the variation in longevity. 

Ultimately, the study makes a compelling argument for healthy lifestyle behaviors and preventive care: “Policies and programs that target behavioral and metabolic risk factors have the potential to improve health in all locations but especially those that are currently most at a disadvantage, consequently reducing geographic disparities.”

Workplace wellness programs play an important role in detecting risk factors and identifying at-risk individuals with preventive care screenings. In conjunction with compliant chronic disease management programs that proactively manage conditions and prevent the development of more serious, long-term conditions, workplace wellness programs can work to improve health and lessen disparities among county life expectancies.

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