Study shows Vermonters live longer than their rural counterparts

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Editor’s note: Jon Margolis, a retired political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is a VTDigger.org columnist.

Rural living isn’t necessarily a country idyll. In fact, for the last few decades, rural areas, such as most of Vermont, have been tougher places to live –and to earn a living – than the cities and suburbs.

Now comes word that rural life is not only harder but shorter. A new study called “Falling behind: Life expectancy in US counties from 2000 to 2007 in an international context,” shows life expectancy is actually declining in many rural counties.

As can be seen from its title, the study, whose lead writer was Sandeep C. Kulkarni of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, was primarily focused on comparing longevity outcomes between the U.S. and other advanced countries. It found far more disparities between affluent and poorer counties in the U.S. than elsewhere.

The disparities were striking. On a county-by-county basis, “life expectancy in 2007 ranged from 65.9 to 81.1 years for men and 73.5 to 86.0 years for women,” the study found.

In all, the report found, life expectancy fell in 860 – or more than one fourth – of the nation’s 3,147 counties. More than 60 percent of those counties – 561 of them – are rural. In fact, in every rural state, life expectancy fell for at least one sex in at least one county.

Well, almost every rural state.

The exception? Vermont, where life expectancy for both men and women rose in all 14 counties.

Barely in Essex County (four tenths of a percent for men; three tenths for women) but at a healthy rate in the other counties. The longest life expectancy for men was 77.8 years in Lamoille County. Chittenden and Addison County women could expect to live 82.2 years, the longest of their sex. In every county, women lived longer, but male life expectancy had increased more between 1987 and 2007.

The results do not necessarily prove that Vermont is healthier than other rural states. Perhaps it’s just whiter. Everywhere, African-Americans and Hispanics had lower life expectancies. The lowest “were in counties in Appalachia and the Deep South, extending across northern Texas… (with) more isolated counties with low life expectancies in a number of western counties with large Native American populations,” the report found.

Still, even in comparison with other white, rural, counties around the country, Vermont’s appear relatively healthier and perhaps more prosperous. Before celebration gets out of hand, though, Vermonters might ponder the results of another new study – this one from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute – which found that “last year more people died than were born in nearly a quarter of U.S. counties,” and four of them were in Vermont: Bennington, Essex, Rutland and Windsor.

Bennington’s ‘natural decrease“ was 252 deaths over births. Rutland County’s was 157, Windsor’s 74 and Essex County’s 63. (In the Carsey study, all four counties also had total population declines. But these are 2009 figures, and differ from the 2010 Census, in which population declined only in Bennington, Essex, and Windsor Counties.

What have thee counties – or the state – been doing wrong?

Apparently nothing. Unless that is, being rural is doing something wrong.

“This is pretty typical for rural areas,” said the Carsey Institute’s senior demographer, UNH sociology professor Kenneth Johnson. “Natural decrease is pretty widespread across country, and is much more evident in the Great Plains.”

As Johnson explained it, natural decrease is especially common wherever farming, logging, or mining were important to a county’s economic foundation. Producing these goods needs far fewer workers than it did a few decades ago, so even where the mines and forests have not been depleted, there is less demand for young and middle-aged adult workers, which would include women – and the husbands of women – in their child-bearing years .

But, he said, there is also a generally positive development that can lead to natural decrease – the in-migration of “amenity-minded” relatively affluent, relatively young, retirees. If a county attracts new residents who are empty-nesters in their early sixties, 25 years or so later, they will start dying. Their children who are having children of their own are having them elsewhere.

Johnson said this factor is more evident in several counties in Florida and in Carroll County, N.H. , just north of Lake Winnipesaukee. But Vermont has also been a destination for not-quite-senior citizens, both retirees and professionals who can earn their keep from their homes. This influx started in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Johnson pointed out, “natural decrease doesn’t occur immediately,” and people who moved to Vermont in their fifties and sixties in the late decades of the last century would be reaching their final years in the first decades of this one.

Just because Vermont’s rural population is declining no faster (and probably more slowly) than those in other states does not mean that falling populations are not a problem.

“People don’t want to see a decline,” Johnson said. “Usually natural decrease occurs because of the loss of so many young people. Probably some schools have to close because there aren’t enough kids any more. And there are other problems, such as not enough volunteer firefighters in towns that depend on them.”

So what can be done?

Perhaps little or nothing.

“Some of it is just inevitable,” Johnson said. Neither in Vermont nor on the Great Plans are so many small farms ever likely to be economically viable as was the case 50 and 100 years ago. Where natural decrease has ended, he said, is usually in rural counties “just beyond the edges of metropolitan areas,” where better transportation and cheaper homes encouraged people to move farther away from the cities and from their jobs.

That, of course, is the suburban sprawl solution, not the most popular course in Vermont.

There is a small-farm agricultural revival in the state, with an increasing number of farms growing fresh vegetables for local consumption or producing cheese from their own cows, sheep, and goats. But whether there are or will be enough of these farms to bring a critical mass of young and middle-aged people to rural Vermont remains unknown.

The other possibility, Johnson said, is expanding those “amenities” enough to attract newcomers to rural counties. Even if the first newcomers are older, he said, their presence eventually “creates opportunities for younger adults” to staff, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and the other services the new residents want.

But to make a major difference, at least some of those “amenity” attractions would have to be big, and the creation of a new university (or even mid-size college, but bigger than the 700 or so students at Bennington) large national or state park, or cutting-edge research center does not seem to be in Vermont’s immediate future.

“There are no policy silver bullets,” Johnson said.

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Jon Margolis

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  • Jules Rabin

    Dear Mr. Margolis,
    Thanks for your intelligent — keen — article on demographic considerations of Vermont today. I plan to send it to a daughter who is a medical doctor, for the light it sheds on the framework of her practice; and also to send an overdue contribution to VT Digger, for its public service in presenting work like yours.
    Jules Rabin