We don’t die from what is on our death certificate.
Whatever is filled in on the form as the cause of death is merely the final symptom and not necessarily the most relevant factor, Kansas City Health Department Director Rex Archer says.
And it’s those other elements — unsafe neighborhoods, poverty and other toxic stresses — that take a horrible toll on people’s health, cutting life expectancy.
This can be tracked.
People’s ZIP codes can be used to predict how long residents will likely live. And residents in some Kansas City ZIP codes have begun to see their life expectancies decline during the past five years.
A swath of Raytown and areas around the Missouri River have seen shifting demographics. And in four ZIP codes — 64117, 64123, 64133 and 64138 — life expectancy is trending downward.
Health department research estimates that 40 percent of Kansas City’s deaths each year can be attributed to six social factors the health department has been monitoring, overlaying the data on ZIP code maps: high school graduation rates, racial segregation, low social support, individual poverty, income inequality and community poverty.
If we want to see more Kansas Citians live well into their 80s, we shouldn’t focus only on the usual suspects, including chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease.
It’s not that basic medical care is unimportant. But even if all cancers were cured or prevented, the city’s life expectancies wouldn’t change much. Not without addressing these other factors that stress the body, triggering illnesses.
It’s why someone might survive a heart attack one year and then die of a stroke the next. Because, as Archer explains, an underlying cause for that person’s illness, such as poverty, might still be present.
Here’s the treatment plan. We’re one year into the Kansas City Community Health Improvement Plan for 2016-2021. The top three areas of focus are educational outcomes, violence prevention and economic mobility.
The work has been spearheaded by the city, which wisely gathered input from a wide range of organizations and leaders. Now, the city’s challenge is to remain focused on the plan’s goals and tackle these factors head-on.
An over-arching truth is that societies that have higher life expectancies have lower rates of income inequality. Archer cites a well-honed theory to illustrate.
It asks people if they would be willing to be born into any family living in any part of their community, if it would not unduly impact their opportunity to thrive. If not, you do not live in a just community. Answer honestly, Kansas City.