A tale of two cities, and two life expectancies

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — I was traveling from Orange County to Stockton recently when I spotted a giant billboard in Terminal B at Sacramento International Airport.

It appeared to be touting sports scores, perhaps Little League or girls’ soccer.

“Stockton 73. Irvine 88,” read the billboard’s big orange letters.

The smaller print explained it. Life expectancy is 73 years in Stockton zip code 95202, compared to 88 years in the Irvine area zip code 92606 in Orange County. The rate statewide is 80.1.

A boy’s face dominated the billboard. His left brow, next to the Stockton statistics, was furrowed. The right side of his face, the Irvine side, was calm.

I’m familiar with both cities. In fact, I had just flown out of John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana–in the zip code just west of 92606–headed for a meeting in Stockton.

Irvine is an upper-middle class city with good schools and plenty of parks. Stockton is an older industrial city in San Joaquin County that recently filed for bankruptcy and has a high foreclosure rate. Yet Irvine is not Beverly Hills, and Stockton is no slum.

How could two diverse cities in the same state—374 miles apart on the I-5 freeway—have a 15-year difference in life expectancy?

Life expectancy can be lowered by an amalgam of factors, say the experts behind the statistics: poverty, homelessness, smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise and drinking.

The billboard was sponsored by the California Endowment, the non-profit foundation that focuses on improving both health care and healthy populations statewide. It was installed in the airport of the state’s capital city to draw attention to health disparities in the state, said communications manager Jeff Okey.

“We wanted to reach policy makers. We wanted them to see this,” Okey said.

The statistics come from A Portrait of California, a 2011 report produced by an initiative of the Social Science Research Council. Researchers have also designed a nationwide interactive map so that we can look up life expectancies in our own zip code zones.

Sometimes these statistical snapshots are too broad. Within the city of Stockton, for instance, life expectancy can vary by 21 years, Stockton Record health writer Joe Goldeen reported in a March article headlined, “Two neighborhoods, years apart.”

Life expectancy is 69 or younger in Central Stockton’s zip code zone, compared to 90 years or older in Lincoln Village in the city’s northwest, Goldeen wrote.

“ZIP codes with the lowest life expectancy tend to have a higher percentage of low-income, Latino and multiethnic urban residents,” he reported, “while those with the highest life expectancy tend to have a white majority, high levels of education and annual average household incomes above the state average.”

Those findings came from a different report, “Place Matters for Health in the San Joaquin Valley,” produced by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

Passing through Terminal B this morning, I saw that California Endowment has replaced the Stockton-Irvine billboard with one focused on providing students with drinking water as an alternative to soda. The graphics have changed. The message is similar.

“…Nearly half of California schools don’t offer free water to students at mealtimes,” the billboard states. “Clean drinking water helps prevent obesity and diabetes. Which helps us live longer.”

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