Dying Too Soon

What are your chances of living to age 75? A new report finds significant racial and geographic disparities across Northern Virginia.
Forest Simon Zzotl6fspls Unsplash

Photo by Forest Simon on Unsplash

Your race, ethnicity and address may determine your chances of living to age 75, according to a new report from the Northern Virginia Health Foundation.

Dying Too Soon” finds major disparities in life expectancy for NOVA residents, depending on where they live. People of color and those living in lower-income neighborhoods face higher health risks and are at much higher risk of premature death. 

The report, commissioned from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, breaks the data into two time periods: 2015 to 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic; and 2020 to 2021 at the height of the pandemic. It compares statistics down to the neighborhood level and across racial populations.  

Prior to Covid there were 22,319 premature deathsdefined as deaths before age 75—across Northern Virginia from 2015 to 2019. That rate was far below the statewide average, a sign of good health that generally exists across the region. But report found that life expectancy varied greatly in different racial populations and between neighborhoods, even before Covid. Black residents were 44% more likely to die before age 75 than their White counterparts. 

Though Arlington County had the lowest mortality rate—about 152 premature deaths per 100,000 people— life expectancies varied dramatically from one neighborhood to the next. In some cases, sharp contrasts were noted between affluent areas located only a few blocks from neighborhoods the report calls “islands of disadvantage,” where poverty rates are high and living conditions low.

Islandsofdisadvantage Fig1

The report identified 15 socioeconomic “islands of disadvantage” across Northern Virginia.

Consider Arlington’s Buckingham and Bluemont neighborhoods, which are located on either side of Henderson Road. The study found the premature death rate in Buckingham was more than five times higher than in Bluemont across the street. Living conditions on either side of that road are starkly different. The poverty rate in Buckingham is seven times higher than in Bluemont. Some 52% of Buckingham residents are people of color, compared with 27% of Bluemont residents.


Apartments in Arlington’s Buckingham neighborhood (county photo)

Other “islands of disadvantage” identified in the report include Columbia Pike/Douglas Park and Fort Myer in Arlington; Seven Corners/Bailey’s Crossroads in Falls Church; and the Arlandria neighborhood near Reagan National Airport.

Similar stark disparities were noted in adjacent communities throughout Northern Virginia. One neighborhood in the Yorkshire area of Manassas had a premature death rate triple that of a neighboring tract in Clifton, where 86% of the population is White, and household income is higher. 

Columbia Pike

Columbia Pike in Arlington (county photo)

During the pandemic, racial and geographic factors had an even greater impact on whether people lived or died. From 2020 to 2021, Covid became the third leading cause of premature death in the region, after cancer and heart disease. But while areas labeled “islands of disadvantage” became hot spots, the wealthiest 10% of census tracts in Northern Virginia saw no increase in premature deaths during that time period.

“For people of color, the pandemic made a bad situation terrible,” says Steven Woolf, the lead author of the study and director of VCU’s Center on Society and Health. “Poverty was a major factor. We found 18 census tracts in Northern Virginia with higher poverty rates than in Balkan and Caucuses countries.”

Premature deaths in those areas weren’t solely from Covid.  Deaths from liver disease, drug overdoses, diabetes, heart disease and stroke also increased significantly during the pandemic, the report finds, likely due to disruptions in access to health care services.

Marginalized communities faced greater risk of exposure at work and home, and greater consequences from lost jobs, including income, food and housing insecurity. They also faced greater challenges in recovering from the pandemic. 

The report recommends policymakers prioritize areas facing health inequities by investing in education; improving access to affordable housing, health care and child care; and improving income opportunities. It also recommends greater investment in state and local public health departments for the protection of public health and safety, and to be better prepared for pandemics and other crises in the future. 

Related Stories:

Categories: Health, Health & Fitness