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Your ZIP Code Might Determine Your Lifespan


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Stilwell, Oklahoma, known as the Strawberry Capital of the World, has the lowest life expectancy in the United States, according to a new dataset by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Washington Post reports.

The three-year study, conducted by nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information, calculated life expectancies for 65,662 Census "tracts" nationwide and found that the residents of Stilwell, a small town in rural Oklahoma, could expect to die nearly a quarter of a century before their peers.

Life expectancy in Stilwell is just 56.3 years — as compared to 78.8 years across the US and an average of 75.7 years across Oklahoma.

Stilwell's life expectancy is even lower than that of the poorest countries in Africa, Tulsa World reports. As of 2016, people in the Democratic Republic of Congo were expected to live 60.5 years and Uganda 62.5 years, according to the World Health Organization.

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Life expectancy is strongly linked to economic and racial factors, Washington Post reports, and poverty is a major determinant of how long a person lives.

Stilwell, which has one of the highest poverty rates in rural Oklahoma, at more than 34%, is not an exception to that. Many residents of the town are dying nearly a generation earlier, just because they live in Stilwell, which has a large Native American population and higher than average level of poverty.

Underlying poverty in Stilwell is its history as one of the end points of the of the Trail of Tears, during which a large Cherokee population was forcefully relocated to the area in the mid 1800s.

After centuries of oppression, many Native Americans still live in poverty. Overall, the poverty rate for those who identify as Native American in the US was nearly 30% in 2012. In some of the most vulnerable communities like the Standing Rock Sioux, poverty affects more than 43% of the population.

Today, almost half of Stilwell's population is Native American, the majority being Cherokee.

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"If you want to understand why one population is sicker than another, it's complex," Dr. Charles Grim, executive director of Cherokee Nation Health Services told Tulsa World. There's education level. Smoking habits. Diet and the availability of healthy foods. And there's a whole range of social issues that people have to deal with," he said.

Persistent discrimination and lack of access to the kinds of opportunities and resources that others have has helped to perpetuate the cycle of poverty among Native Americans and in rural, low-income areas like Stilwell.

Stilwell, a rural town, isn't the only part of the US with high poverty rates and low life expectancies. Poverty rates among rural communities tend to be higher due to three factors — lack of amenities and services, geographic isolation, and social norms — which reinforce a cycle of poverty” according to Tulsa World.

But even within a city, there are major discrepancies in life expectancy. In New York County, which includes the island of Manhattan, people can expect to live anywhere between 59 years and 93.6 years, according to the study. The large life expectancy range reflects the large wealth disparity in the city.

"People who live blocks apart can have very different expectations in how long they'll live because of the conditions in which people are living," Donald Schwarz, a Senior Vice President at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation told the Washington Post.

“That represents uneven opportunity for people, particularly children, to have long lives,” he said.