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This Is Why People in Red States Die Earlier, Study Says

Here's why—and how the coronavirus could come into play.
Man red state pickup

Residents of blue states live longer than their counterparts in red states—a result of social programs and policies that promote health, a new study suggests.

The study (published in the journal Milbank Quarterly on Tuesday) found that in the states where people live longest, there are more progressive policies, including stricter environmental regulations, tougher gun-safety laws and protections for workers and minorities.

For example: California has one of the highest average life expectancies in the country (81.3 years). It also had the most liberal policies in the nation in 2014, the most recent year the study examined.

"The overarching conclusion is clear: States that have invested in their populations' social and economic well-being by enacting more liberal policies over time tend to be the same states that have made considerable gains in life expectancy," said the study's authors.

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The findings aren't totally surprising to health experts. "Although the study's authors note that they can't prove that state policies caused the gap in life expectancy, the correlation is a persistent one across multiple states and several decades," the Los Angeles Times noted on Tuesday.

For example:

• Connecticut's social policies have become more liberal over the last several decades. Life expectancy increased 5.8 years between 1980 and 2017, to 80.7 years.

• Oklahoma has become more conservative. Life expectancy increased only 2.2 years in that time period, to 75.8 years.

Americans Dying Younger

Life expectancy in the United States declined every year from 2015 to 2017, an anomaly the Washington Post called "an appalling performance" not seen since 1915 to 1918, during World War I. (Life expectancy rose slightly in 2018, the last year for which numbers are available, but it's not clear if that is a trend.) Conventional wisdom is that the opioid epidemic is to blame, but some experts believe a wider set of social issues—and governmental reaction to them—may be responsible.

"When we look at what is happening with life expectancy, the tendency is to focus on individual explanations about what Americans are doing," said Syracuse University sociologist Jennifer Karas Montez, lead author of the new study. "But state policies are so important. States like Connecticut are investing in their population, investing in schools, setting an economic floor for their workers, discouraging behaviors like smoking that kill people. You have other states like Mississippi and Oklahoma that aren't doing any of this."

A Link to Coronavirus?

The study might attract more interest because of the ad hoc response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In its earliest days, President Trump rejected a coordinated federal response, leaving individual states to set their own policies on matters like social distancing.

The first states to be hit by the coronavirus earlier this year were blue states, including New York, New Jersey and Washington. Six months into the pandemic, those states have largely turned back the tide of infection because of strict regulations, including lockdowns.

This summer, cases of coronavirus grew exponentially nationwide. The surge was led by red states such as Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Arizona, all of which initially took a more laissez-faire approach toward policies like lockdowns, mask requirements and banning large gatherings.

As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 37 Places You're Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus.

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