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Life expectancies vary dramatically in Hampton Roads

Your ZIP Code could be more important than your genetic code in determining how long you live, one expert explains.

NORFOLK, Va. — Your ZIP Code could be more important than your genetic code in determining how long you live.

In Hampton Roads, some of our healthiest cities border some of our least. 13News Now discovered a 20-year gap in life expectancies in our region.

In Virginia Beach, the life expectancy is 81. In Chesapeake, it’s 79. Both cities are doing well, considering the national average is 77.

But other cities are lagging behind.

INTERACTIVE: Use this tool from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to enter your street address or zip code to find your area's life expectancy.

Williamsburg has the longest life expectancy in Greater Hampton Roads at 88 years. But the average age drops to 81 in neighboring James City County. The average life span falls even more in Newport News and Hampton, which both have a life expectancy of 77 years.

That’s an extra decade of average living for people whose homes are just miles apart on the Peninsula. 

“You have shocking differences in one neighborhood literally across the street from another neighborhood," said Dr. Derek Chapman, a professor from the VCU Center on Society and Health.

Dr. Chapman studies the health implications of social factors for a living. He said income, poverty, and education are the three big factors impacting life expectancy.

He argues much of that is based on where you live.

“Those choices -- about what we eat or how you exercise -- are often limited by the neighborhoods we live in," said Dr. Chapman. "It’s everything from opportunities for education and jobs, safety, affordable housing, availability of nutritious food, clean air, access to health care, all those things."

On the Southside, the life expectancy in Norfolk is just 75. Across the river in Portsmouth, it drops to 74, which is the lowest of the Seven Cities.

But drive an hour southwest to Franklin and the average expectancy drops to 69, which is almost 10 years younger than nearby Suffolk and Southampton. And that makes Franklin's life expectancy is a stunning 20 years shorter when compared with Williamsburg. 

“We make the case that place matters," Dr. Chapman said. "So if we make improvements to the place, everybody’s life expectancy will go up, so this impacts everybody.”

Dr. Chapman said the root causes of these health gaps are often products of historic and current policies. He pointed to racial segregation in housing as an example. 

“It’s very common to find large gaps in life expectancy within a city in one neighborhood versus the other and almost inevitably those will involve persons of color and historic segregation that led to that situation," Dr. Chapman said.

A note about methodology: We compared life expectancies in Hampton Roads by plugging in local zip codes using the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's online interactive tool, and then rounding up to the nearest round number. The local data supplied by RWJF and used in this story is from 2018. The national-level life expectancy (77.3 years) referenced in this story is from the CDC in 2020.

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