While life expectancy in many parts of the United States is dropping, it has increased by 10 years in Manhattan since 1987. Researchers largely attribute that rise — the fastest in the nation — to a crackdown by the New York City health department on unhealthy behaviors.
Manhattanites can now expect to live to the ripe old age of 82, and the average life expectancy across all five New York City boroughs is 80.6 years. That's three years beyond the national average, and a striking turnaround since the city's low point in 1990, when life expectancy there trailed the U.S. average by three years.
The numbers come from researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Heath Metrics and Evaluation, who recently estimated the life expectancies in all 3,147 independent American cities and counties each year from 1987 through 2009. Even with New York's success, the IHME team found life expectancy in the country as a whole lengthened just 1.7 years per decade, a slower pace of progress than in the world's most long-lived countries. (The United States ranks 50th in that regard, according to the CIA World Fact Book.)
So, why is New York doing so well, and how can other U.S. cities get their residents' longevities up to speed? [Infographic: A Day in the Life of the Average American]
According to the British medical journal The Lancet, most gains made during the 1990s aren't replicable elsewhere. The city ramped up its life expectancy by reining in homicide rates and HIV/AIDS-related mortality, both of which had weighed down the average at the beginning of the decade.
However, gains made after 2000 reflect true improvements in individual health. Mirroring the national average, some 87 percent of deaths in the Big Apple result from noncommunicable diseases — preventable ailments such as heart disease and lung cancer — but the number of yearly deaths from those causes is steadily falling. The IHME researchers determined that more than 60 percent of the increase in New Yorkers' life expectancy since 2000 can be attributed to reductions in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke.
Lead researcher Ali Mokdad said the reduction is largely thanks to aggressive efforts by city health officials to simply take away unhealthy choices from residents. The health department has, for example, banned trans fats, prohibited smoking in public spaces and hiked taxes on cigarettes. It has also rolled out hundreds of miles of new bicycle lanes, mandated the use of calorie labels on menus in chain restaurants and plastered posters up in subways with information about the risks of obesity and the benefits of preventive health services. [What Are the Leading Causes of Death?]
At the moment the city is considering a partial ban on large servings of sugar-sweetened drinks, which would go into effect next year.
“For way too long, public health departments have defined their responsibilities as essentially infectious- disease control rather than improvement of health of the population," New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley told The Lancet. In 21st-century New York, the real concerns are tobacco, poor nutrition and inactivity, so the health department has made them their new focus, he said. "It's not a given that we're going to continue to have high rates of smoking and high rates of [noncommunicable] diseases; those are as preventable as infectious diseases were 150 years ago."
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.