SPRINGFIELD — A national analysis of data on life expectancy released by the Associated Press this week show that people who live in poorer neighborhoods in Springfield generally have a lower life expectancy than people in more affluent areas — a detail that’s no surprise to key health advocates in the city.
Advocates such as Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen R. Caulton-Harris say they have been aware of that statistical phenomenon for many years as they carry on the task of evaluating and trying to improve the health of the city and its residents.
“The report does not surprise me because it is consistent with the data and findings for the city of Springfield,” Caulton-Harris said. “It is income that really does drive how an individual can live their life and take advantage and have options.”
The AP reviewed records involving 65,662 census tracks across the United States, and analyzed data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
In Springfield, those census tracts with the lowest income generally had the lowest life expectancy, and those with the highest income had the highest life expectancy, according to the report’s data.
The downtown area, known as Metro Center, had city’s the lowest life expectancy, at 70.3 years of age. That life expectancy was 10.4 years below the state average and 8.4 years below the national average.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 data, the median income in Metro Center was $12,325, and 10.4 percent of the population was unemployed. The population was 72.3 percent Hispanic, 12.9 percent black, and 13.6 percent white.
Other census tracts in Springfield that had the lowest life expectancy were in the Bay and Pine Point neighborhoods, both having a life expectancy of 73.9 years.
The highest life expectancy was an area of Forest Park abutting Longmeadow and East Longmeadow, at 81.2 years of age.
In that census area, the median income was $57,734, and 4.7 percent of the population was unemployed. The area was 83.6 percent white, 5.5 percent Hispanic, and 1.9 percent black. The next highest life expectancy locally was an area of Sixteen Acres, known as Outer Belt, where life expectancy was listed as 81.1 years.
Map by Greg Saulmon / The Republican • Source: AP / National Center for Health Statistics
The map above shows how life expectancy in Massachusetts census Springfield census tracts compares to the national average. Tap or hover your cursor over a shape to see the tract number, neighborhood and additional data.
There are multiple factors in poorer neighborhoods that lead to health challenges and ultimately risks to lower life expectancy, local advocates said.
The factors include poorer access and ability to afford quality health care, poorer access to affordable healthy food and exercise programs, environmental hazards such as poorer air quality in some congested urban areas, higher substance abuse and greater rates of crime and threats to their safety, Springfield advocates said.
Synthia Scott-Mitchell, director of community services for Springfield Partners for Community Action, joined Caulton-Harris in saying she was not surprised by the statistics and findings.
The statistics of poorer health and lower life expectancy are particularly seen in low income areas and in “communities of color,” Scott-Mitchell said. A greater number of minorities live in poorer communities, she said.
Those areas have higher rates of obesity and chronic diseases around hypertension, diabetes, asthma and others, she said.
There is also poorer access to fresh, healthy food such as fruits and vegetables, as some areas are virtual “food deserts” with an absence of supermarkets, she said. Many will use options such as convenience stores and fast food restaurants and vendors for their food, she said.
“All lead to bad health outcomes,” Scott-Mitchell said. “This is the stuff we’ve known for years. These are the challenges we are facing.”
Caulton-Harris echoed many of her concerns, and noted other factors such as people who might not go outside for exercise because they don’t feel safe or find it too costly to join a gym.
In addition, substance abuse tends to be greater in neighborhoods where there is concentrated poverty, Caulton-Harris said.
There are also some in the city who are “medically underserved,” particularly with access to specialty medical professionals, due to factors such as low income or transportation challenges, she said.
Both Caulton-Harris and Scott-Mitchell said there are ongoing efforts to educate and assist people with improving their health and life expectancy.
Caulton-Harris said her city department continuously pursues grants to promote health and wellness and tackle substance abuse and mental health issues.
“Number on is to make sure individuals in Springfield are able to secure a living wage,” Caulton-Harris said. “When people are working, gainfully employed, they feel good about themselves and their family. They are able to get healthy food.”
Partners for Community Action has hosted workshops on diabetes and nutrition education, Scott-Mitchell said. There is also an effort to bring a new full-line grocery store to the Mason Square area, which has many low-income residents, and there are also advocates promoting community gardens in the city to aid in fresh fruits and vegetables.
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