Northern Virginia consistently ranks among the nation’s wealthiest, healthiest and most-educated regions. It’s where some of the most powerful government workers, lawyers and contractors reside in sprawling homes.
But these stories of wealth aren’t representative of the entire area, according to a study released Tuesday that shows the stark disparity in life expectancies between Northern Virginia’s richest and poorest residents. The average life expectancy of a child born in an affluent census tract can be as much as 13 years higher than those in the poorest.
A baby born in parts of western Lorton, for example, is expected to live to 89, while a newborn a short distance away in Manassas has a life expectancy of 76 years, according to the report from the Northern Virginia Health Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health.
“A different future awaits children born blocks apart in Northern Virginia,” the report concludes. “Metro stops and interstate exits separate the haves and have nots of our region.”
The average life expectancy at birth in the United States in 2015 is 79.3 years, according to the World Health Organization, and the life expectancy significantly varies between poor and rich areas.
In Fairfax County alone, life expectancy ranges by as much as 10 years between western Lorton and eastern Lorton census tracts separated by four miles. In western Lorton, where the median household income is $133,413 and 12 percent of the population is black, the life expectancy is 89. In eastern Lorton, where the median income is $77,901 and 37 percent of residents are black, life expectancy drops to 79, according to the report.
Babies in Alexandria’s Seminary Hill neighborhood, which has an average income of $186,705, can expect to live 84 years, the report found. A few census tracts north in Alexandria, where the average income is $44,624, the life expectancy drops to 79.
The disparities can be attributed to health-care access and individual behaviors, according to the report, but the largest influences are education, income and race. Neighborhood conditions, such as unsafe housing, access to grocery stores and transportation, also influence life expectancy.
The study notes that some poorer neighborhoods lack adequate parks and sidewalks, and parents might think it’s unsafe for children to play outside. In these neighborhoods, a fast-food outlet can be easier to find than a grocery store with fresh produce.
“It’s about city planning, zoning and transportation issues,” said Patricia Mathews, the president of the health foundation.
Steven Woolf, who helped to author the study, said the health outcomes of some low-income black and Hispanic residents in Northern Virginia are much like those seen in poorer, urban areas similar to parts of the District. But because these suburban, impoverished areas are nestled among affluent areas, they are often overlooked, he said.
“When you look at our economic data, Northern Virginia looks pretty good,” said Woolf, who is the director of the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health at VCU. “But the purpose of this is to zoom in to the counties in a more granular way, and when you do you see these pockets of poverty that are in great need and growing due to the current economy.”
Woolf and Mathews said life expectancy is one of many factors in measuring health. If others, such as obesity and the prevalence of certain diseases were examined, the disparities would persist, Mathews said.
Healthier conditions could be achieved through public policy to boost employment levels and early-childhood education, the report argues. The study’s authors urge municipalities to ensure access to transportation and invest in mental-health services so families have resources to cope with the depression, stress and drug addiction that can come with poverty.
“There are some spending decisions that can make a difference,” Mathews said. “Health is determined by more than just health care.”