Mon July 25, 2011
Health and Environment

New Study Affirms Colorado’s Poorest Populations Die Younger

Colorado’s lowest life expectancies often occur in the counties with the highest poverty rates, according to a recent study by the University of Washington and U.S. Census data.

The disparity doesn’t surprise health care advocates serving low-income communities, where finances often influence health care decisions.

“They have to have their basic needs covered first,” said Janet Fieldman, chief foundation officerfor the Pueblo Community Health Center Foundation. “If there’s anything left, are they really going to spend it on medicine they’re not sure they need?”

Examples of the correlation between poverty and shorter lives include:

  • Crowley County in southeast Colorado is the poorest county in the state, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. There, 53 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. Men live an average of 74.1 years – nearly three-and-half years less than the statewide average. Females in Crowley County live two years less than the state average of 82.
  • Women in nearby Bent County fare even worse than the women in Crowley County, with life expectancy rates of 79.3 years.  More than 37 percent of the population in rural Bent County lives below the poverty line.

In contrast, the state’s wealthiest counties posted some of the highest life expectancy rates – not just in Colorado, but nationwide.

  • In Douglas County south of Denver, men’s life expectancy is fifth highest in the nation at 80.3 years.  Douglas County households earn a median income of more than $100,000, ranking the county as the seventh wealthiest nationwide, according to Forbes magazine.
  • Pitkin County, home of Aspen, has the nation’s eighth highest life expectancy for men at 80 and seventh for females at 84.2 years. Its median household income is $70,000.

Areas with lower income levels tend to have higher rates of tobacco use and obesity, which can limit life expectancy, said Amy Downs, senior director for policy and analysis at the Colorado Health Institute.

In 2008, the institute examined the link between obesity, education and income.  It found that Coloradans who made less than $25,000 a year had an obesity rate of 24 percent, five points higher than the state average of 19 percent.

The rates of obesity were also higher among those with less education – 26 percent for Coloradans who did not graduate from high school.

Researchers, according to the report, suggest that less educated residents may not be as aware of the value of nutrition and exercise, which can help lessen obesity rates.

Kelly Dunkin, vice president of philanthropy for the Colorado Health Foundation, says people living in impoverished communities also struggle with obtaining nutritious food, fitness opportunities and health care – the key components to healthy living.

“Either they are uninsured, or they are eligible for public programs but they don’t know how to get enrolled,” Dunkin explained. “In some areas, they don’t have enough primary care physicians serving those communities.”

Shortages of primary care physicians are often most severe in impoverished communities, according to the Colorado Health Institute. All of Crowley County, for example, is served solely by one advanced practice nurse.

The Foundation is attacking the problem by supporting health centers in low-income communities, which offer a wide range of services. The Pueblo Community Health Center, where Fieldman works, has had success lowering blood sugar levels in diabetics who participate in a diabetes disease management program.

Harvard School of Public Health studies have shown that addressing diabetes and other high-risk conditions can help improve life expectancy.  Reducing blood pressure to healthy levels, for example, can expand the mile life span by a year and a half.

Pueblo has some of the lowest life expectancy rates in the state, at 74.1 for men and 80 for women. But Fieldman says she is “absolutely optimistic” that the clinic will help improve health in the community.  “I would love to work myself out of a job.”