KINGSTON, RI — There’s only 7.28 years’ difference between the state’s longest and shortest-lived communities, with education the strongest determining factor, according to URI’s Rhode Island Life Expectancy Project.
Warwick ranks 31 of 39 with an average likely years lived at 78.89. Barrington stands at the top of the life expectancy ranking with an average lifetimes ending at 83 years, while Woonsocket is at the bottom with average lifetimes ending at 75 years.
The Rhode Island Life Expectancy Project surveys life expectancy on a community level for the first time, according to the study’s web page. According to the study, Rhode Island has the fourteenth-lowest death rate and the thirteenth-highest life expectancy of all 50 states, and has the third-lowest death rate among all six New England states. It’s tied for sixth-lowest percent of uninsured population and the sixth-lowest teen birth rate in the country.
While life expectancy data for the state as a whole is positive, the less detailed look makes local health disparities tough to spot, said Steve Cohen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Studies at URI and the project’s principal investigator.
So, the researchers studied life expectancy for each of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities, looking at the potential for education, wealth, crime, environmental factors, and housing to play a role.
Economic factors correlated with life expectancy
Fewer people on public assistance and living below the poverty line, and more households with higher mean income were all associated with higher life expectancy, according to the report.
Barrington, for instance, with RI’s highest life expectancy, has 1.9 percent of its population living below the poverty line, and 200 people receiving public assistance. U.S. Census data shows Barrington’s median household income at $117,408.
Warwick has 4.8 percent of its population living below the poverty line, with 1,767 receiving public assistance. U.S. Census data shows Warwick’s median household income at $71,191.
Woonsocket, with RI’s lowest life expectancy, has 18.2 percent of its population living below the poverty line, and 4,455 people living on public assistance. U.S. Census data shows Woonsocket’s median household income at $38,340.
Safety statistics and life expectancy
While Rhode Island ranks seventh on US News and World Reports’ List of Safest States, higher life expectancy was found in areas with lower crime rates.
Barrington’s violent crime rate was 0.368 per 1,000, according to the report, while Woonsocket’s violent crime rate was 5.34 per 1,000. Warwick’s violent crime rate was 1.23.
Education and life expectancy
Of all the factors contributing to longer life expectancy, Cohen said, education seemed to provide the strongest benefit. Even high ratings for high school education were strongly correlated with high life expectancy, though the communities with the highest life expectancy were those with the highest percentage of people having earned at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the report.
In Barrington, 96 percent of the people had earned at least a high school eduation, and 63 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In Warwick, 89 percent of the people had earned at least a high school education, and 29 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In Woonsocket, 72 percent of the people had earned at least a high school education, and 12.9 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“It actually helps you to connect to social networks that help you with your health routine,” Cohen said.
While income and safety are also strong factors in determining life expectancy, he said, the evidence indicates the best thing communities can do to make sure their members live long, healthy lives is to invest in education.
“I think the fact that it is so clearly related to education, to really start there,” Cohen said.
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