State of Mind

07.20.13

Study Proves Southern States Have Lowest Life Expectancy

A new study says living in the South will shorten your life. But, finds Eliza Shapiro, happiness, politics and even earnings may be equally potent predictors.

Deciding where to ride out your golden years?  

Hawaii is—surprise!—your best bet, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control, but avoid Mississippi—and the entire American South.

The most recent survey of healthy life expectancies for all 50 states found that residents in the South, as well as African-Americans regardless of geography, are expected to live shorter lives and spend their twilight years in poor health. The study found that 65-year-old residents of Hawaii were, on average, likely to live another 16.2 years past 65. In Mississippi, residents of the same age were expected to live only another 10.8 years.

But, location is certainly not the only lifespan indicator. Whether causation, correlation, or just coincidence, according to a Daily Beast analysis of the CDC data against other population and quality-of-life metrics, the states where Americans can expect to live the longest, healthiest lives are also largely states that lean left politically and whose residents rank highest in overall happiness. Likewise, many states where the CDC found people are expected to live shorter and less healthy lives are politically conservative states with low happiness listings and low median incomes.  

The states with the lowest healthy life expectancy were almost exclusively concentrated in the South; Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia all had life expectancies of less than 13 years past 65 for its elderly residents.

Nearly all of those states ranked among the lowest on the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index that compares the well-being of residents in all 50 states. Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, and West Virginia occupy the last six spots on the well-being ranking.

The 13 states with the lowest healthy life expectancies also all voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and are generally considered politically right-leaning states. And seven of those 13 states—Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Mississippi—have the lowest median income of all 50 states, according to Census data.

The correlation between life expectancy, politics and well-being is also strong for states with the highest healthy life expectancies, if not as strong for states with the lowest.

Residents of Florida, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, South Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as Hawaii, have healthy life expectancies of 15 years or more after the age of 65, according to the CDC.

Ten of those 13 states voted for President Obama in the 2012 presidential election and are considered politically liberal states, with the exception of Utah, South Dakota, and Arizona.

Seven of those states—Hawaii, Colorado, Minnesota, Utah, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts—are ranked in the top ten of the Gallup Well-Being Index.

But, just four of those 13 states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Hawaii—are among the 10 states with the highest median income.  

Healthy life expectancy was lower for African-Americans than whites across the country, except in Nevada and New Mexico. Across the country, women are more likely to live long, healthy lives than men.

“Where you live in the United States shouldn’t determine how long and healthy you live,” Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, said in a statement, “but it does, far more than it should.”

Additional reporting by Filipa Iannou and Sarah Langs.