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Maps Show Life Expectancy Varies Between Nearby NC Zip Codes

An image of life expectancy across NC counties
VCU Center on Society and Health

A couple miles up Highway 540 in Raleigh could mean a difference of 12 years in life expectancy, according to new maps from the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

The maps of North Carolina illustrate that health conditions can vary within neighboring counties and zip codes. One of the maps shows that along U.S. Route 64, from Wake County to rural Martin County, life expectancy can differ by as much as seven years.

“The maps we’ve developed for North Carolina demonstrate that short distances to large gaps in health can occur in big cities, small towns and in rural areas,” said Derek Chapman, Ph.D., associate director for research at the VCU Center on Society and Health. “This is rarely due to a single cause, but instead linked to factors such as opportunities for education and jobs, safe and affordable housing, availability of nutritious food and places for physical activity, clean air, and access to health care, child care, and social services.” 

A map of Raleigh demonstrates that people born in Southeast Raleigh can expect to live 12 fewer years than those born near the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, a difference of about 18 miles.

A map of life expectancy in Raleigh NC zip codes
Credit VCU Center on Society and Health

Chapman said the maps are intended to be conversation starters for policy makers and community organizations, and improvements in health conditions go beyond access to health care.

“It takes everybody to build a culture of health.  Individuals, communities and even businesses play a role in fostering healthy communities," Chapman said.

He said his team wants to raise public awareness of the factors that shape health conditions, such as education, housing and transportation.

"Something so simple as sidewalks can reduce the risk of obesity, which is a risk factor for heart diseases," Chapman said. "Neighborhood safety and accessibility of grocery stores can also play a role before you show up at the hospital with your crisis."

The maps of North Carolina are a part of 20 maps Chapman's team is constructing on life expectancy in different regions across the country.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
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