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When you'll die depends on where you live

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People living in the wealthier parts of Medford and Ashland can expect to live almost 20 years longer than those living in central Medford next to I-5.

The neighborhood running along the interstate in downtown Medford has an average life expectancy at birth of only 66.2 years the worst in Oregon, according to a new study examining life expectancy by census tract across the nation.

“That’s a very short life expectancy for people living in that area. It seems like a lot of those folks are dying prematurely of potentially preventable causes,” said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, state health officer for the Oregon Health Authority.

Life expectancy in central Medford is below that of India, which has a life expectancy of 69 years, she said.

“Traditionally when people think about life expectancy, they often think about it in different countries around the world. When it comes to doing this within the United States, I think that’s the piece that’s a little surprising that you could have two neighborhoods that are relatively close by that have such a big difference,” Hedberg said.

Two miles away, people living near the Rogue Valley Country Club and its golf course in east Medford have a life expectancy of 81.9 years.

Julie Heath is living temporarily in a motel in central Medford. She said she’s not surprised the life expectancy in the neighborhood is so low.

“It’s a really bad neighborhood. Sometimes I’m afraid to walk to the store to buy a soda. I shut my window when I leave so no one gets in,” she said. “It’s scary. It’s a bad neighborhood and all kinds of things can happen. Money is the key to happiness. If you have money, you can be healthy.”

Central Medford resident Nelda Davis sees people from all walks of life visit the Riverside Avenue convenience store where she works.

On a recent morning, her customers included a young man with mental illness suffering from delusions, a wheelchair-bound homeless man staying in a hotel and a fit, active man juggling two jobs.

Davis said she’s shocked that life expectancy can vary so much by neighborhood.

“I would like to learn how it’s possible,” she said. “Can we do something different to change it?”

Davis said drugs and alcohol are a problem in the neighborhood. She tries to steer clear of bad influences and teach her children to do the same.

“Watch what type of people you are around. There are people out here who do drugs and alcohol. If you avoid those types of things, people can live a healthier life,” Davis advised.

With cars rushing by on Riverside Avenue and an almost constant stream of customers in and out of the convenience store, Davis said she seeks peace and quiet in nature, where she can spend time thinking about how to improve her life.

TouVelle State Recreation Site, located nine miles north of Medford along the Rogue River, is one of her favorite get-aways, although she can’t go there every day.

“When I have a stressful day, I like nature. I love it out there. The city noise does take a toll on me mentally,” she said.

Nature is only steps away for those living near the Rogue Valley Country Club. The golf course there features wide open spaces, oaks and pines and a pond dotted with Canada geese. The expansive lawns provide a view of the valley below.

Out golfing, retired nurse and Medford resident Barbara Ramin said she often saw disparities in health between low- and higher-income patients during her career.

She said low-income patients often didn’t seek medical care until a problem had become serious. That could partially account for the big differences in life expectancy.

“I think education is the most important thing. It would help if people knew what to look for as warning signs in their own health, were able to see a provider and had access to providers,” Ramin said. “I feel bad that there is such a big disparity.”

In Ashland, life expectancy in some areas is even higher than Medford’s top neighborhood near the country club.

Residents of an ultra-healthy neighborhood in central Ashland have the highest life expectancy in Jackson County at 85.6 years.

People in a census tract uphill from Siskiyou Boulevard have a life expectancy of 82.5 years.

The lowest life expectancy, at 78.7 years, is in the Southern Oregon University area.

Still, Ashland’s least healthy census tract beats out the national life expectancy average of 78.6 years.

Talent life expectancy 80.4 and 83.8 years rivals that found in Ashland. On average, Talent residents on the east side of I-5 live longer than those on the west side.

Central Point life expectancy ranges from 77.9 to 82.4 years, while Eagle Point’s is 77.8 years.

Phoenix neighborhoods have life expectancies in the mid to late-70s, with longevity declining the closer people live to I-5.

In rural Jackson County, people in the southeast corner of the county outside Ashland have an 81.4 year life expectancy.

Residents of the Shady Cove and Trail area in north Jackson County have the worst rural life expectancy at 76.3 years.

Jacksonville was not covered in the national study by the United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Project.

The highest life expectancy in Oregon 89.1 years is in a neighborhood next to Forest Park in Portland.

The study used death records of U.S. residents and deceased people’s addresses to help create estimates on life expectancy for most census tracts in America. The project was a partnership of the National Center for Health Statistics, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems.

Hedberg said a variety of socioeconomic factors influence longevity.

Graduating from high school, having a well-paying job with benefits and living in adequate housing are key predictors of health, she said.

“We know if somebody’s homeless that they often die much, much younger than people who are adequately housed,” Hedberg said.

Supporting education from preschool through high school would help more kids graduate and land decent jobs, she said.

Reducing alcohol, drug and tobacco use can help prevent premature death, according to Hedberg.

“We know people who use tobacco tend to not be as healthy. It’s not just that they die earlier of certain chronic diseases. They tend to come down with more illnesses during the year, respiratory illness among other things,” she said.

David Creager, a former Medford resident who moved to Talent, still visits the Rogue Valley YMCA in downtown Medford.

He’s already lived past the life expectancy for central Medford.

At the YMCA, Creager said people can learn about fitness and nutrition and share ideas for healthy living. He said even more central Medford residents might die young without the YMCA.

In addition to eating right and exercising, Creager said the key to a long, healthy life is to stay socially engaged and active and to nurture family relationships.

He said senior citizens who move into assisted living facilities and no longer get visits from relatives sometimes decline rapidly.

“The family doesn’t come and visit anymore. There’s a mindset of, ‘They’re old. What can we talk about?’ But when people go to assisted living, they still need the family to visit. They need to have contact with the family,” Creager said. “Not having visitors will contribute to a quick death.”

Creager said he also has social connections through his church and enjoys volunteering at McLoughlin Middle School in central Medford. Church members have weekend plans to pull weeds, spread bark dust and make other improvements at the school.

“Having activities is probably one of the biggest things. Do something other than sitting and looking out the window,” Creager said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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