Fellowship Story Showcase
Where you reside can give strong clues on life expectancy
What explains a two-decade difference in life expectancy for residents of two different zip codes within the same city? Nicole Brambila examines some of the factors - income, education, healthy food access and neighborhood safety, just to name a few - that contribute to life expectancy in the Coachella Valley.
Ana Sanchez lives in a tiny trailer downwind of a soil recycling plant that air quality regulators said was the source last year of a noxious odor. The water has unhealthy levels of arsenic.
The 52-year-old's only exercise is walking with her grandchildren around the grassless lot.
She doesn't have a car to make the 20-minute drive to Coachella for groceries, or to the Oasis clinic where she sees a doctor for her diabetes. She depends on family and friends, or the clinic shuttle to pick her up.
Twenty-five miles down the road, Bill Powers lives within walking distance of a golf course at Indian Wells Country Club and maintains a 16 handicap.
In his home city of majestic, perfectly coiffed rows of palm trees, calming fountains and elegant restaurants, the 70-year-old and hospital board member sticks to chicken and fish, does yoga, enjoys a fine glass of healthy red wine from his cellar and sees his cardiologist regularly.
He even knows his cholesterol level: 155 to 160.
Who will live longer?
Average life expectancy in Powers' 92210 ZIP code is 82.7 years, the second-highest in the Coachella Valley, according to statistics compiled for The Desert Sun by the Riverside County Department of Public Health.
That's higher than the overall valley average age of 80.5 years, Riverside County's 78.1 years, California's 80.1 years and the United States' 77.7 years.
But the life expectancy in Mecca's ZIP code of 92254 is 86 years, the highest of any city in the Coachella Valley.
In most cases, education and money, like in Indian Wells, don't just buy nicer cars and bigger houses.
They also buy better health and a longer life with bicycle paths, golf courses and personal trainers; healthy food and myriad places to get it; safer neighborhoods; lower crime and stress; primary care physicians, specialists and even personal, housecall doctors.
Mecca is predominantly Latino and poor, which defies the odds and is what researchers are at a loss to explain other than pointing to a “Latino health paradox.”
Latinos live longer than whites nationally by 2.5 years and blacks by 8, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts speculate that Latino immigrants may not be as quick to embrace the fast-food, sedentary U.S. lifestyle.
The constant influx of immigrants coming to the United States to work also could skew the numbers with younger, healthier people. Older immigrants may return to their country of origin before dying.
Still, this area in the eastern part of the valley is the only place in the United States visited by the Los Médicos Voladores or the Flying Doctors.
The group, which has been visiting once a year since 1996, usually only goes to Third World countries.
Thousands line up and wait for hours to see the doctors because they don't have health insurance. Even if they did, the area is almost devoid of physicians.
Local health care leaders are trying to work out a solution, such as expanding the local health district, building more health centers and training more doctors who will stay in the Coachella Valley.
“The people in Mecca might live longer than in Palm Springs, but that doesn't mean they're healthier,” said G. Richard Olds, dean of the University of California at Riverside School of Medicine. “Let's not use this for an excuse why they don't deserve the same health care as everyone else.”\
Latino health paradox
The paradox also may be in play in Indio, which has two ZIP codes with life expectancies a startling 16 years apart.
However, the county health department says it would take some targeted research to identify exactly what's going on.
In the 92201 ZIP code, the average life expectancy is 83.5 years.
It's in old Indio, a predominantly younger, Latino and working-class community.
It's where Sylvia Cardona, 52, scoops two handfuls of lard from a 25-pound bucket, one of the key ingredients for the traditional Sunday morning tortillas.
“Every time, I eat something I'm not supposed to,” she said.
In the 92203 ZIP code, it's 67.3 years, the lowest in the Coachella Valley.
That's new Indio, just north of Interstate 10, where luxury homes have cropped up.
It's where Erin Gilhuly, a 38-year-old president of an Indian Wells public relations firm, moved with her husband and children a few years ago.
“A lot of families moved to Indio,” she said. “People who were looking for more house for less money.”
Some rules at her house: The family has to eat a fruit and/or vegetable with every meal. No “buttons,” as in remote controls for TV or games, until dark, after playing. Mom and Dad have gym memberships they use a couple of times a week.
But from what the statistics show, not everyone is like this family.
“I clean houses and I see they don't use the stoves at all,” Cardona said. “You open the refrigerator and they don't have anything. They only eat out. We don't have the money to eat out.”
Calculating the odds
If you remove Latinos from the mix, where you live dictates a lot about how long you live.
“The most important number for your health isn't your BMI [relative body fat], but your ZIP code,” said Jan Wallander, co-director of the Center of Excellence on Health Disparities in Merced.
Those in affluent areas are generally better educated and make more money, which translates into better health care and environment. Crime is largely a dynamic of poverty and affects health in its own way. Residents are less likely to exercise outside, and it increases stress, which can lead to heart disease.
Dr. Raul Ruiz, a Coachella Valley physician, said understanding that leads to “the epiphany.”
“Oh, high school dropout rates have an impact on health,” he said.
“You can't look at the individual in isolation of their living context.”
Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and La Quinta — all more affluent, and better educated communities in the valley — have average life expectancies in the 80s.
Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Coachella and Desert Hot Springs rank in the 70s, with one ZIP code of Desert Hot Springs the lowest on that list — 74.3 years.
Tracy Taylor lives in the Desert Hot Springs ZIP code of 92240, which generally is dotted with more mobile homes than the other ZIP code of 92241 that has newer homes.
Those who live in Taylor's ZIP code are expected to live five years less.
Taylor recently felt sick to her stomach and dizzy. It was the chest pains, though, that convinced her she was having a heart attack.
At just 35 years old, the doctor wasn't too convinced. He ordered an EKG to be certain, but the final determination turned out to be stress.
With a husband in jail for a home burglary, Taylor is now a single, stay-at-home mom to eight children 19 months to 16 years.
Stress is normal. But left unmanaged, it can lead to elevated hormone levels linked to an increased risk for heart disease — the leading cause of death in Desert Hot Springs.
Of course, there always are anomalies. Whether the beneficiary of good genetics or just plain lucky, not everyone agrees on why they happen.
Lynn Hunter will tell you, tongue-in-cheek, that she should have been dead long ago.
A smoker for more than 50 years who doesn't eat right or exercise, she defies all the adages about good health and longevity.
She lives in Sun City Shadow Hills, in the Indio ZIP code with the lowest average life expectancy in the valley — 67.3 years.
The 76-year-old points out she's already outlived that by 10 years, and said she doesn't believe where you live has anything to do with it.
“I'm a fatalist,” said Hunter, who retired from health care marketing more than a dozen years ago. “When it's your turn, it's your turn.”