Are Life Spans Getting Longer? It Depends On How Wealthy You Are

While life expectancies are getting longer for those who are well off, life spans for poor women are actually getting shorter. The stories of two women, from two very different places, illustrate the reasons for the gap.

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We've all heard about the studies that say we're living longer, But some recent research shows that is only true for certain people. If you're well-off you are expected to live longer, but if you are poor and a woman your life expectancy is actually going down in some parts of the country. NPR's Kelly McEvers brings us this story of women from two very different places.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: When radio reporters go out to story, there's this thing we do to test our microphones. We ask people what they had for breakfast - turns out, it tells a lot about their lifestyle.

CLOTEAL JONES: I usually eat eggs, potatoes and bacon and toast.

MCEVERS: That is Cloteal Jones, a caregiver with Catholic charities. She's 58 and she works in the home of Pearlie Thomas who's 64 and who just got home from her errands.

Hi there, good to see you.

PEARLIE THOMAS: You too, you too

MCEVERS: Her husband had a stroke a few years back and now spends most of his time in bed. That is why Cloteal comes to help. Pearlie and Cloteal feel live in Fresno, California, struggling inland city the medium income is just under $40,000, unemployment is high and crime is very high, especially Pearlie and Cloteal they live - on the west side.

MCEVERS: How would you describe this neighborhood?

THOMAS: Everybody says because it's the black side that it's the bad side, but it's bad everywhere. You go across town, they do killings.

MCEVERS: There is one problem particular to this neighborhood - a recent study found this ZIP Code has one of the lower life expectancies and California - at 75 years old and for some people going down. That's compared to 85 in some of California's richest ZIP Codes. It's a trend we're seeing across the U.S. Researchers believe poor people aren't living as long because of obesity, smoking, stress and lack of access to good health care. Cloteal and Pearlie don't smoke, but Pearlie's husband smokes a lot in the house. Pearlie is active, she has healthcare but it's expensive. Her only income is her and her husband's Social Security, and that stresses her out, that and her family history.

THOMAS: I had three sisters and I am the only one left so my baby sister died four months back.

MCEVERS: Of cancer, another sister died of cancer and another after an asthma attack. When economists and policymakers talk about inequality, this is one of the consequences - how much you make and where you live can determine how long you live. Pearlie has sinus trouble and high blood pressure. She says she worries about dying too soon, but the most of the time she feels okay.

THOMAS: You going to have ups and downs no matters what, if you're Christian, whatever, you're going to ups and downs in life. So I'm getting used to more downs than up, but I still come up sometimes.

MCEVERS: If you leave Pearlie's house and drive north and west over the mountains and toward the coast and a couple of hours you'll be in the town of Los Gatos California. But you might as well be on another planet. The town is part of booming Silicon Valley, where crime is low, unemployment is low, the median income is nearly $80,000, and life expectancy is high.

So what's that you're doing there?

VALERIE LOZOWICKI: I am rolling my feet across the top of this ball so that my knees are getting all juiced up.

MCEVERS: A Pilates studio in Los Gatos is where I find Valerie Lozowicki who's 66 and Gloria Penrose who's 81. Gloria is on a machine, called a reformer, doing leg presses.

How does that feel?

GLORIA PENROSE: It feels good, get stretched out.

MCEVERS: Both women have had knee surgery. Valerie slipped and toward her meniscus. Gloria first tore hers and skiing accidents so Gloria does Pilates twice a week.

PENROSE: Well, my husband wanted me to get going and I'd had these knee injuries and I really wasn't working out like I always have.

MCEVERS: Both Gloria and Valerie's husband exercise too. Gloria says she's always moving.

PENROSE: Taking care of the dirty dogs and I still cook dinner every night. Valerie knows that because I complain about it, and I'm in a book club and do fun things the neighbors.

MCEVERS: If you look at the map of the U.S., this is the reality. Women from wealthier, whiter areas like Gloria and Valerie are living longer with better access to healthcare less, stress and healthier lifestyles, while women from struggling, often nonwhite areas like Pearlie and Cloteal are dying sooner. Valerie says she and Gloria are determined to make the most of their good fortune.

LOZOWICKI: And they think we're doing pretty good. Glory is my role model.

PENROSE: And she's much better on the reformer that I am.

MCEVERS: Policymakers say this growing disparity between women like Gloria and Valerie and women like Cloteal and Pearlie raises all kinds of questions. Should we raise the Social Security age if some people aren't living longer? Will be affordable care act help? What about increasing minimum wage? One thing researchers can agree on - the trend is not slowing anytime soon. The life expectancy gap between rich and poor is only getting wider. Oh, when I asked the Los Gatos women what they had for breakfast - for Valerie, it's a cup of tea a bowl of cereal fresh fruit and sometimes an egg. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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