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UW report: King County a national leader in life expectancy

by May 4th, 2012

King County ranks in the top two percent nationally for male and female life expectancy, according to a nationwide survey of all 3,147 U.S. counties or county equivalents, by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. IHME’s U.S. County Performance Research Team, led by Dr. Ali Mokdad, of Mercer Island, recently presented the survey data (here, in an Excel file) at a health care journalists conference in Atlanta. Researchers gathered life expectancy data for men and for women in each U.S. county, and used 1989, 1999 and 2009 as key touchpoints.

The work is part of the broader Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors 2010 Study which updates similar work last completed in 1996, and aims to give researchers and decision makers better data to guide policy. The life expectancy data for all U.S. counties are given additional context by a series of three visualizations from IHME. An especially useful one allows comparisons of life expectancies in individual U.S. counties with other nations.

Average life expectancy for women in King County in 2009 (the most recent year for which data were provided) was 83.2 years, which tied for 46th nationally out of 3,147 and ranks within the top two percent. Average life expectancy for men in King County was 79.2 years in 2009, or tied for 43rd nationally, also within the top two percent.

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But because life expectancies and other public health indicators can vary widely with a county, IHME is digging in deeper to health disparities on its home turf through the Monitoring Disparities in Chronic Conditions Study in partnership with Public Health – Seattle & King County. According to a news release which accompanied the new national life expectancy data, the King County study is examining socioeconomic and health risk factors in connection with frequency of visits to hospitals and outpatient clinics and with how well prescribed remedies are implemented.

“What makes the difference is getting the right medication at the right dose. We screen people for diseases but don’t always follow through to manage the diseases,” said Mokdad. IHME also says that U.S. health disparities including differences in life expectancy are most often driven by “preventable causes of death” such as tobacco use, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and alcohol.

King County was not the only one in Washington state to rank near the top nationally in life expectancy. Island County was 14th nationally out of 3,147 counties or county equivalents in 2009 average female life expectancy, at 84.1 years; and Jefferson County was 33rd of 3,147 at 83.4 years. Island County also ranked 5th nationally in 2009 average life expectancy for men at 80.9 years. Three other Washington counties also ranked within the top five percent nationally in 2009 life expectancy for men; Benton, Chelan and Jefferson.

In Washington state as a whole, average life expectancy for men in 2009 was 77.8 years versus 76.2 years in the U.S.. For women it was 81.9 years, against 81.3 nationally. Overall, the IHME data shows many more U.S. counties with longer average life expectancies than in recent decades, but researchers sound a cautionary note that for women life expectancy has plateaued or decreased from 1989 to 2009 in 661 counties nationwide, and for men, in 166 counties. The problem is particularly prevalent in states such as Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia.

Among U.S. counties in 2009, average life expectancies were longest for women in Collier (FL) – 85.8; Marin (CA) – 85.1; Montgomery (MD) – 85; San Mateo (CA) – 84.9; Santa Clara (CA) and Stearns (MN) – both 84.6. For men, top counties were Marin (CA) – 81.6; Montgomery (MD) – 81.4; Fairfax (VA) – 81.3; Douglas (CO) – 81; and Island (WA) 80.9.
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