On a blustery but sunny December morning in Walter Hall Park, perhaps because of the brisk wind, few people were out enjoying the big multi-use green space between state Highway 3 and Clear Creek on the north side of the city.
One group was brave enough to face the elements, however. Five women and their coach set down yoga pads next to strollers and bundled up babies and were coached through a group workout as part of a program for young mothers called “Stroller Strides.”
On some days, after the workout is over, the moms might take longer walks through the trails in the park, or head over to the natural food co-op to see what’s on sale.
Being around people who care about their health makes it easier for everybody else to be healthy, said Molly Kang, who was leading the class.
“Your friends influence you,” Kang said. “So, if your friends say ‘Hey, let’s go exercise, I’m going to exercise.’”
Unbeknownst to the group, they were working out in one of the parts of Galveston County where people are expected to live the longest.
The area of League City, roughly between Clear Creek, Dickinson Avenue, FM 646 and Interstate 45, has an average life expectancy of 83.9 years, for people born between 2010 and 2015. That’s about five years longer than the state average.
New data released by The Associated Press and the National Center for Health Statistics show how much neighborhoods can affect the length of a life, and where in the Galveston County people’s environments might be helping them live longer.
The Associated Press analyzed life expectancy and demographic data from 65,662 census tracts, which are geographic areas that encompass roughly 4,000 residents. The Associated Press found that certain demographic qualities — high rates of unemployment, low household income, a concentration of black or Native American residents and low rates of high school education — affected life expectancy in most neighborhoods.
An increase of 10 percentage points in the unemployment rate in a neighborhood translated to a loss of roughly a year and a half of life expectancy, the Associated Press found. A neighborhood where more adults failed to graduate high school had shorter predicted longevity, according to the report.
There aren’t simple answers to the question of why people in one area live longer than in others, those who study such issues. It comes down to a variety of factors, said John Prochaska, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch who studies social and environmental determinants of health.
“Where you live does play a role in your health,” Prochaska said. Environmental factors — things like air and water quality play a big part in life expectancy, but so do societal factors, he said. Income levels, education and employment factor into how readily people can access food and healthcare.
In Texas, the average life expectancy for a person born between 2010 and 2015 is 78.8 years. That’s about middle of the pack on a state level. The average life expectancy in Hawaii is 82 years. In Mississippi, the life expectancy is 74.9 years.
The numbers in a given state can be higher and lower depending on the neighborhood.
The highest life expectancy in Texas is 89.7 years in a tract in Hidalgo County, at the U.S.-Mexico border. The lowest life expectancy in the state is 60.7 years, in a tract found in Wichita Falls, near the Texas-Oklahoma border.
In Galveston County, life expectancy ranges from 85.9 years for the tract that includes Galveston’s far West End, to 69.4 years, for a tract along state Highway 6 near Hitchcock that includes the unincorporated community of Freddiesville.
Tucked between the highway and Highland Bayou, there are few stores or services in the tract to speak of. The Freddiesville neighborhood flooded badly during hurricanes Ike and Alicia. About a quarter of its residents have less than a high school education and about the same amount don’t have health insurance.
Still, that the area had the lowest expectancy in the county surprised, Jessica Roads, who owns The Palms, a bar on the side of state Highway 6, at the corner of the street that leads into the Freddiesville neighborhood.
A lifelong resident of the area, she said the neighborhood felt like a good place to live, apart from the occasional person with a criminal record who moved in to the area.
“That’s surprising,” Roads said about the area’s lower-than-average life expectancy. “I mean, why here? I thought it was the same everywhere.”
Generally, Galveston county’s higher life expectancies are in the north parts of the county, and the west side of Galveston Island. The middle of the county, in more rural and industrial areas, people see lower life expectancies, according to the report.
But some places on the island can see drastic differences, just in a matter of blocks. For instance, people living in part of the Kempner Park neighborhood, one of Galveston’s oldest and wealthiest neighborhoods, have a much higher life expectancy than the census tracts surrounding it, which are all lower than the state average.
Information about life expectancy can be used to inform decisions being made by political leaders and policy makers, the same way they already use things like economic data, Prochaska said.
“We should be considering the potential health implications of decisions and planning efforts,” Prochaska said. “One thing the data provide are an extra piece of information that our leaders can use when deciding things.”