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What is Killing New Yorkers?

New Yorkers, on average, are living longer than ever before – and longer than other American populations. Life expectancy in New York City exceeds 80 years, with the most resourced New Yorkers fending off the Grim Reaper the longest. But for every New Yorker, the party does someday end. Here’s how and why New Yorkers eventually bite the dust.

Heart disease, cancer, the flu and pneumonia, and diabetes are among the leading causes of mortality in New York City. Accidents, as well as accidental poisonings, or death by psychoactive substance use are also among the top ten killers of New Yorkers, according to the most recent data from the New York City Department of Health.

Accidents, which outnumbered homicides, suicides, and other fatal incidents in 2014, include unintentional drug overdoses, falls, motor vehicle accidents, death due to smoke, fire and/or flame exposure suffocation, and drowning and submersion. New Yorkers have even died from extreme heat events; older adults in particular are most at risk when temperatures hit 95 degrees; the threshold for an extreme heat event.

On a whole though, New Yorkers are doing better than their counterparts across the United States. Gains in life expectancy in New York City have outpaced gains in national life expectancy over the past decade, according to a March 2013 Epi Research Report from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This is true across genders, racial and ethnic groups, and neighborhoods of disparate poverty levels. The increase in life expectancy is largely attributable to declines in mortality among older adults and to declines in death by heart disease, cancer and HIV infection.

Life expectancy measures the average number of years an individual of a certain age can expect to live given current mortality rates. Public health interventions have helped raise New Yorkers’ life expectancy at birth, which, from 2001-2010, rose from 77.9 to 80.9 years.

Suicide rates in New York City are HALF the national average.

NYC’s suicide by gun rate is a tenth of the national average. Gun control advocates attribute this to the city’s gun possession laws, which are some of the strictest in the country. But New York does have a higher rate of suicide by jumping than any other American city.

The motor vehicle crash mortality rate is lower in New York City    

People don’t drive as much in New York as they do elsewhere; instead they walk, bike, or use public transportation, which drives down the number of deaths by motor vehicle collisions.


Immigrants live longer

Populations with a large percentage of immigrants tend to have higher life expectancies. People who leave other countries to come to New York tend to be healthy. If they are sick, they are much less likely to have the ability or ambition to move away from home.


Examples of successful efforts to control leading causes of death in low-income parts of the city include tobacco control, HIV prevention programs, and promoting physical activity and healthy eating. In 2006, the Board of Health banned trans fat, a contributor to heart disease, one of the leading causes of death in New York City, in restaurants and other eating establishments.

“From 2002 through 2010, smoking declined at a faster rate in NYC than in the US as a whole (35% vs. 25%) as a result of aggressive anti-smoking policies and campaigns in NYC,” reads a DOH report. NYC’s HIV age-adjusted death rate also declined 55.6% during the past decade, according to the 2014 Summary of Vital Statistics for The City of New York.

Aggregate data representing overall trends, however, can obscure poorer health in high-poverty pockets of the city. The flip side to New Yorkers living longer is that life expectancy in New York varies widely among neighborhoods and is closely tied to poverty levels. “Aggregate data only tells you what the average health outcomes and indicators are, but it doesn’t give you a real picture by neighborhood, race, and ethnicity,” said Marilyn Aguirre-Molina, a public health professor at Lehman College who focuses on the structural factors affecting the health of ethnic and racial populations in the United States. “There are parts of Brooklyn that have pockets that are like third-world countries,” she said. Brownsville, Brooklyn has a life expectancy of 74.4 years, which is close to that of Brazil, whose inhabitants can expect to live to 73.62 years.

Despite universal increases in life expectancy across disparate New York City neighborhoods, there is a persistent and widening gap between life expectancy in low-income and high-income communities. The difference in life expectancy between very high and low poverty areas in 2013 was 7.4 years compared to 5.8 in 2004. In the poorest parts of New York City, life expectancy is as low as 79.3 years. In the wealthiest, life expectancy is 83.2 years.

The data is evidence that living conditions, neighborhood conditions, and incomes are the real factors contributing to death rates, according to Aguirre-Molina. She said that stress associated with living in a low-income area can be linked to heart disease, and that even racism can be an underlying cause of cardiovascular disease. “Many cause contributors to death have roots in poverty and disadvantages that contribute to stress. And if you know anything about stress, it will kill you,” she said. Aguirre-Moline even joked that one’s zip code can be more important than one’s genetic code. “It tells you a great deal about your health and health risk factors.”

Battery Park/Tribeca residents have the longest life expectancy (85.9), followed by Murray Hill, Upper East Side, Greenwich Village/SOHO and Elmhurst Corona. Residents of Brownsville, where housing conditions, crime rates, sanitation services and even the quality of schools are unfavorable, can only expect to live to 74.4 years of age.

The proliferation of junk food in poor neighborhoods, instead of quality food sources, fuels childhood obesity, which leads to health complications later in life. “There are bodegas without good produce and supermarkets filled with canned foods that are saturated with sodium and always on sale, it seems,” said Aguirre-Molina.

One discrepancy between New York City and the rest of the country: While in more than 600 counties in the United States girls born in 2009 are projected to have shorter lives than their mothers, in New York City, both boys and girls born in 2010 are expected to have longer life spans than their parents.

In 2010, Hispanics in New York City had a higher life expectancy of an additional six months compared to non-Hispanic whites, despite the fact that they are more likely to live in neighborhoods of high poverty and low education. Sociologists refer to this as the “Hispanic Paradox,” as there is no known, agreed upon explanation for the surprising data.

Although New York City’s suicide rate is half the national average, more New Yorkers die from jumps and falls off balconies, bridges, buildings, roofs, and out of windows than in other cities across the United States. — Megan Cerullo