Study links health to wealth in the Twin Cities

Researchers have known for some time that taking care of yourself and seeing a doctor when necessary isn't a guarantee of a long life. Social factors also play a role.

For example, if you're poor, live in a crime-ridden, polluted neighborhood, or have less education, you may not live as long as people with more money, more education and safer neighborhoods.

Now a local group of researchers has confirmed that these same health inequities exist in the Twin Cities metro area.

Craig Helmstetter thought it might be possible that the seven-county metro area would be the exception to national mortality trends. After all, Minnesota commonly ranks near the top in measures such as income, home ownership and overall health.

"We went into the study kind of hopeful. Well, if there's someplace that can avoid these inequities it might be the Twin Cities. Unfortunately that was not the case," said Helmstetter, the chief author of the new report by Wilder Research.

The study was commissioned by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation.

Helmstetter mapped the life expectancy of people in the Twin Cities using Minnesota Department of Health mortality and U.S. Census Bureau data. Then he looked at the median income in those zip codes using data from the 2000 Census.

He found that about 7 percent of the Twin Cities population lived in zip codes where household median income was $35,000 or less. These areas were clustered in the central cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"And in those areas the life expectancy was less than 75 years of age," he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, about 13 percent of the population lived in zip codes with household median incomes of $75,000 or more. These areas tended to be second-ring suburbs, including Chanhassen, Minnetonka, Eagan and Apple Valley.

"And their life expectancy was over 82 years of age," Helmstetter said. "So we have about an eight-year difference between those two groups."

Zip codes with incomes that fell in between those two extremes had life expectancies generally in the upper 70s.

The Wilder study didn't look specifically at whether a person's own wealth was the reason for longer lifespans. but Helmstetter says other research suggests that just living near people with higher incomes can extend a person's life.

"We think that neighborhoods with higher median incomes are more likely to have better access to healthier foods, better access to places to exercise, to parks, to recreational areas and have a safer environment in which to get out and walk, jog or otherwise recreate, engage in activities that improve your health," he said.

Wilder researchers also discovered some particularly stark health disparities among various racial and ethnic groups. For that analysis they looked at mortality rates that measured in deaths per 100,000 people. The rate was calculated using data from people ages 25-64, to get a more accurate comparison among groups.

Among American Indians there were 814 deaths per 100,000. U.S. born blacks had a similarly high mortality rate of 704 deaths per 100,000 people. On the other end of the spectrum, some Asian Americans groups had mortality rates as low as 132 deaths per 100,000.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation asked several non-profit agencies in the Twin Cities to review the Wilder Research report and suggest some solutions.

Dane Smith is president of one of those groups, Growth and Justice, a St. Paul-based think tank that focuses on economic fairness.

Smith said he would tackle the problem by making sure that the youngest Minnesotans are given every opportunity to succeed in life.

"I think we need to begin investing as aggressively as we can in early childhood education. And then you need to make sure that we do take care of the safety net in general," he said.

Nan Madden, who directs the Minnesota Budget Project, said the report makes a strong argument for increasing the state's minimum wage and requiring employers to give employees some paid sick days.

She says making progress in just one of these areas can improve the community's health on many fronts.

"I would hate for anyone to read this report and say, 'Well, because all these things are connected, we can't make any progress because we'd have to solve the whole problem.'" she said. "That's not what this report says to me. To me it says there are multiple things we can do as a community that will help narrow these disparities."

The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation says the study's health findings should help advocates make an even stronger argument that it's cost-effective to combat problems like poverty, the education gap and racial and economic segregation in the Twin Cities.

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