There are large variations of life expectancy in the U.S.

Americans are living longer. But that’s not the case in every corner of the country. According to a new study, hundreds of U.S. counties, mostly in the South, life expectancy has fallen.


The researchers think problems such as smoking and obesity are partly to blame.

“There are enormous variations within the country,” said Christopher Murray, a University of Washington researcher. He’s a study author and an editor of the online journal Population Health Metrics, which released the study today.

Overall life expectancy in the United States is at an all-time high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that a baby born in 2009 could expect to live 78 years and two months.

The CDC doesn’t calculate estimates by county; Murray’s research covers 2000 through 2007 when U.S. life expectancy grew a year to nearly 78.

A federal expert in these kinds of statistics said Murray’s methods were sound and the findings aren’t terribly surprising.

The U.S. estimate actually dropped from 2004 to 2005, said Bob Anderson of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Given that downward blip — and the fact that statistics fluctuate more when you’re dealing with smaller populations — it’s not unexpected to see some declines at the local level, he said.

The study found that life expectancy for women fell significantly in 702 of the nation’s more than 3,100 counties. The largest declines, nearly two years, were in Mississippi’s Madison County, near Jackson, and Hughes and Okfuskee counties in eastern Oklahoma.

Life expectancy dropped for men in 251 counties and by more than two years in Kentucky’s Perry County and Mississippi’s Madison.

In 158 counties, it dropped for men and women. In some cases, counties with plummeting life expectancy were next to or near counties with rising longevity.

There is some debate about why life expectancy estimates rose and fell more in some counties than others.

Murray and his colleagues said they checked issues such as poverty and racial makeup and that those didn’t explain the difference. They think high rates of obesity, smoking and other preventable health problems may be main reasons.

The counties with the largest increases in male life expectancy were metro areas lush with jobs and universities: almost four years in Georgia’s Fulton County (Atlanta) and more than three years in New York City, Washington and nearby Alexandria, Va.

For women, the biggest jumps, 31/2 years, — were in Alexandria and a Wyoming County that includes the affluent Jackson Hole skiing area and much of Yellowstone National Park.

Curiously, third on that list was Louisiana’s Orleans Parish, even though it included the 2005 devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

Photo credit:  AccessRx