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Manhattanites Beat Out Bostonians On Living Longer, But Why?

Comparing Boston, NYC, Mass. and national life expectancy

(Data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington. Chart by Jesse Costa for WBUR.)

This is public health as parlor game. The graph above uses new county-by-county data on life expectancy, and the dynamic it captures is that New York County — better known as Manhattan — started out worse than Suffolk County, the county that most overlaps with Boston. Then it shot up dramatically, so that it surpassed Boston, and the national average, and even notoriously healthy Massachusetts.

I’d wanted to compare the two cities because, well, of course, everything in Boston is really about the Red Sox, isn’t it? And this graph was reminiscent of far too many play-off seasons with the Yankees. But also because a recent article in The Lancet gave huge credit to Mayor Michael Bloomberg for New Yorkers’ longer lives. And I wondered whether Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino, who is also very public-health-minded, could show similar gains.

(fotocommunity.com)

When we floated this graph earlier this week and asked for reaction, a couple of commenters on The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, which linked to our post, lambasted us for mixing apples and oranges. Suffolk County includes some lower-income areas outside Boston, they pointed out, while Manhattan is rolling in riches. I consulted Goodarz Danaei, assistant professor of global health at the Harvard School of Public Health, and he confirmed the fruit problem.

“It’s an interesting comparison but not an easy one,” he said. “I agree with you and some of the commenters that it’s not quite apples to apples in this case, particularly because of the ways that counties are demarcated.” Continue reading