Life Expectancy: Another Way New Yorkers Are Better

New Yorkers aren't exactly known for their zen, health-promoting lifestyles, but new data show that life expectancy for city residents now surpasses the rest of the U.S. How did that happen?

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Najlah Feanny / Corbis

Seniors at the Queens North Community Center participate in afternoon bingo.

New York City is known for a lot of things — nightlife, world-class cuisine, an enviable skyline. There is, of course, a flip side to fast-moving life in the big city: our hair-trigger tempers, in-your-face attitudes and the relatively constant state of angst that comes from living cheek-to-jowl with more than 8 million urban neighbors.

But all of that is what drew me to this city and kept me here — I’m a happily committed New Yorker. I’ve always assumed, however, that I was paying a high price for my go-go urban lifestyle. Studies have shown that big city residents tend to have more stress, which can translate into skyrocketing blood pressure and increased rates of heart disease.

As it turns out, I might have been wrong. Living in New York may actually be good for your long-term health, at least according to the latest life expectancy data compiled by the city’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. Babies born in New York City in 2009 can expect to live a record 80.6 years, nearly three years longer than in 2000 and more than two years longer than the current national average of 78.2 years.

Life expectancy for 40-year-old New Yorkers rose to 82 in 2009, a 2.5-year increase from 2000 — slightly more than double the increase for middle-aged Americans on the whole. Life expectancy for 70-year-olds in New York also increased by 1.5 years, compared with 0.7 years for the country on average. Go figure.

“If you want to live longer and healthier than the average American, then come to New York City,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters at a press conference announcing the new figures on Tuesday.

Is it something in the water? Not quite. According to Bloomberg, the success can be attributed in part to his administration’s aggressive public-health programs, which have sought to reduce smoking, cut salt consumption, encourage healthy eating and ban trans fats from food.

At the press conference, held in the maternity ward of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley noted that since 2002, nearly half a million New Yorkers have quit smoking — the smoking rate is now down to 14 out of every 100 New Yorkers — for which the city administration credits the mayor’s intensive anti-smoking efforts, including the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, the establishment of an excise tax on cigarettes and a quit-line for those who need help kicking the habit.

City officials attributed the city’s decline in deaths from heart disease in part to the mayor’s anti-smoking campaigns (and also to improvements in care for people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease). Heart disease deaths dropped 27.9% since 2002, contributing to the increase in city residents’ life expectancy. The statistics also show that cancer deaths have fallen by 4.3% since 2002.

The mayor also touted the city’s well-publicized moves to require calorie counts on menus at chain and fast food restaurants, which he believes has steered more New Yorkers away from the kind of poor dietary choices that contribute to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. (I have to admit that seeing the number of calories in a frappuccino has curbed my afternoon cravings.) New York was the first city in the nation, in 2006, to ban trans fats — a major culprit in promoting artery clogging and heart disease — from restaurant foods, including everything from pizza to bagels.

However, the most significant contributor to New Yorkers’ increased life expectancy had nothing to do with smoking or diet. Rather, it was the city’s expanded testing and treatment of people with HIV. More than 90% of patients who are diagnosed with HIV in the city’s health system currently receive drug treatment within 90 days; in 2011 alone, the city tested 195,516 patients, more than three times as many people tested six years earlier, helping to reduce mortality from HIV and AIDS. The death rate from HIV is declining faster than other causes of death in New York City, down 11.3% since 2000 and 51.9% since 2002.

“By investing in health care and continuing to encourage more New Yorkers to take charge of their own health, we’ve experienced dramatic improvements in life expectancy,” the mayor said.

City officials said that overdose deaths from heroin, cocaine and other illicit drugs were also down, further boosting life expectancy. Infant mortality rates had also dropped, reflecting healthier mothers and better obstetric and pediatric care.

Although the new life expectancy numbers are encouraging, the fact remains that heart disease, cancer and flu/pneumonia are still the top three leading causes of death in New York, followed by lung disease and diabetes. (This is New York, after all, and not everybody takes kindly to being told not to smoke or eat fast food.) A third of all deaths in New York occur before age 65, with more than 15,000 New Yorkers dying prematurely each year.

But many of these deaths can be prevented, and the city is hard at work trying — as its public-health campaigns demonstrate. The health messages in New York are ubiquitous and persistent; you can’t avoid them (much like New Yorkers themselves). So, if there’s any upside to standing in a crowded subway car every day or fighting through the hordes at Times Square, maybe it’s that the city’s pervasive health-promoting billboards and ads might soon sink in.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.