Massachusetts residents are healthier than the average American, according to a national survey of health data, but their health varies widely based on where they live.
The University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute on Wednesday released its annual rankings of the health of US counties, based on more than 90 factors such as food security, transportation, housing, education, and air pollution. The institute also released data that compared the overall health of each state with the national average.
Researchers found that the Commonwealth is healthier than most states. Massachusetts residents smoke less, are less likely to be obese, and are more physically active than average Americans. Residents are also more likely to have completed high school, obtained some level of higher education, and are more likely to vote, all factors that contribute to overall health.
However, that health is not evenly distributed, according to the report, which ranked Nantucket and Middlesex counties as the healthiest and Berkshire and Hampden counties as the least healthy. Suffolk County, home to Boston, Revere, and Chelsea, ranked 11th out of 14.
How long you live, for example, can depend on where you live. Residents of Nantucket County were found to have a life expectancy of 83 years, almost 6 years longer than residents of Hampden County, which includes Springfield and Holyoke, who lived on average to 77.4, researchers found.
Researchers also found that life expectancy varied by race and ethnicity, with Asian communities generally having the longest life expectancies and Black communities the shortest. In Hampden County, Asian residents lived an average of 11 years longer than their Black counterparts between 2018 and 2020.
In Suffolk County, where residents were found to live an average of 80.2 years, that number also varied widely across racial demographics. Asian residents were found to have a life expectancy of 93 years, compared with 75.6 years for Black residents, 80.6 years for white residents, and 85.5 years for Hispanic residents.
“The data and the disparities really reflect a legacy of structural inequities from historical policies,” said Julia Raifman, assistant professor of Public Health at Boston University. “Investing in the communities with the lowest life expectancies and ensuring livable wages for everyone have to be a priority to ensure that counties don’t get left behind.”
Food insecurity also varied across the state. In Norfolk and Middlesex counties, 7 percent of residents did not have reliable access to food, researchers found, compared with Suffolk and Hampden counties, where 12 percent of residents experienced food insecurity as of 2020.
Christina Maxwell, director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, said she has seen an increase in people turning to her food banks and pantries over the past year in Hampden County and other parts of Western Massachusetts. This increase goes hand in hand with the ending of some pandemic-era benefits, such as the child tax credit, and rising inflation, which has made it more difficult for many residents to make ends meet.
“It is disheartening to see measures that were effective in reducing food insecurity taken away,” she said. “It’s tough to take a step backwards.”
The institute also explored the relationship between community health and civic participation, including data about voter turnout and census participation. Civic engagement is a key part of creating healthier and more equitable communities, although it might not be the first thing people think of, according to Michael Stevenson, an evidence and policy analysis team lead at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
“Folks can attend their local city council meetings and advocate for green spaces and parks or investments in libraries,” Stevenson said.
The takeaway, he said, is how much power participating in democracy holds to shape people’s health across the country and the importance of ensuring that everyone has access to that power.