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Orange County sees highest life expectancy in North Carolina due to abundant resources


Orange County residents lead the state's average life expectancy by almost four years.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s 2019 U.S. health map, the average life expectancy for a North Carolina resident is 78.2 years, while the average in Orange County is 82.1. The listed U.S. life expectancy for 2019 was just over 79 years.

Robeson County ranks the lowest in the state with a life expectancy of 73 years, which is about nine years behind Orange County. Rural areas like Robeson County have a notably lower life expectancy than the rest of the state.

Jennifer Lund, an associate professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said structural racism, which has been prominent in the South, provides socioeconomic context for the differences in life expectancy.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s 2019 U.S. health map, the average life expectancy for a North Carolina resident is 78.2 years, while the average in Orange County is 82.1. Social determinants, such as healthcare access and housing, contribute to the higher life expectancy in Orange County. 

Geographic and socioeconomic disparities in access to healthcare, as well as possible delays in accessing treatment, can lead to individuals being diagnosed with cancer at a later or untreatable stage, Lund said.

Her research areas focuses on geriatric oncology and pharmacoepidemiology, which is the study of the interactions between medicines and human populations in real life conditions. Lund said she has increased her research on aging because of the high median age of those who are diagnosed with cancer across the state.

“North Carolina just recently expanded Medicaid, about 10 years after other states,” Lund said. “So, that in itself is kind of a huge barrier to healthcare access for some people.”

Orange County, though, is home to the UNC Health Care system and has resources, such as free transit, that make hospitals more accessible.

“You have enough density of people that you have social connectedness, but you don't have so much density that you're in a really competitive environment for resources,” said Jenny Womack, the founding director of Appalachian State University’s occupational therapy program.

Before assuming her current position, Womack worked as an occupational therapist with older individuals at the Orange County Department on Aging. She was also the associate director of UNC’s Partnerships in Aging Program.

Higher life expectancy in Orange County is tied to the social determinants of health, Womack said. According to the World Health Organization, social determinants of health include income, education level, food insecurity, housing and health care access.

Amanda Holliday, associate professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said rural North Carolina has a low usage rate of federal nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and food delivery programs for older adults.

She added that food deserts, areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food, contribute to the lower life expectancy found in rural North Carolina.

“In rural areas, federal money that is trickling down to help deal with food insecurity is hard to disperse to these in need just because of the rural nature,” Holliday said.

In her work with the OCDOA and PiAP, Womack helped coordinate the development of the Crescent Magnolia project in Hillsborough. This is the first Habitat for Humanity development in North Carolina to provide older adults with homeownership opportunities.

Crescent Magnolia is a development of 24 single-story townhomes designed for adults ages 55 and older. The community was developed to model Martin Luther King Jr.'s idea of a "Beloved Community" — a neighborhood designed to increase access, equality and opportunity.

The OCDOA provides resources for older individuals at county’s senior centers, the Passmore Center in Hillsborough and the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill. It offers a congregate meal program that provides free lunches at its senior centers, services that help with life transitions and health care access, and recreational activities for seniors.

“They are a very progressive group of people in terms of thinking about all the ways they can address the needs, wants and desires of people who are a certain age living in Orange County,” Womack said. 

Though Orange County has infrastructure that provides food access, transportation and housing needs for the aging population, Womack said there is work to be done in both the state and county to help marginalized communities age.

“We have a very privileged group of people in Orange County, in some way," Womack said. "And then there are those folks who are feeling like they are more at the margins, and how are they going to feel integrated into the services and resources that we can provide?” 

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Walker Livingston

Walker Livingston is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer city & state editor. Walker is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and American studies, with a minor in data science.  

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