I read an article the other day with an ominous headline: “Sioux City residents have the shortest life expectancy in Iowa.” This article was published by 24/7 Wall Street, who reviewed life expectancy at birth figures from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It also cited data from the U.S. Census Bureau (2014 and 2016 American Community Surveys) and County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. As any good math teacher or grant writer can tell you, it is possible to find statistics that help you make just about any point you want to make, but I’m not going to dispute the findings; I’m going to delve a bit deeper to try to tell more of the story.

In the big picture, Iowa has the 16th highest state rate for life expectancy: 79.7 years. Sioux City’s life expectancy rate is 78.8 years, which happens to be the national life expectancy for a person born in 2015. This is actually the first drop in the United States’ rate since 1993. For the record, Gadsden, Alabama, has the lowest metro rate of 73.9 years.

So, Sioux City is low in Iowa, but nationally we are right in line.

The article by 24/7 Wall Street cited two primary factors: obesity rate and median household income. No avoiding the issue - our adult obesity rate, defined as having a Body Mass Index over 30, of 34.3 percent lands us in the top 10 percentile in the country. It is 3.3 points higher than Iowa’s rate of 31 percent and more than eight points higher than the nation’s lowest rate. Other health behaviors that earned us a state ranking of 97 out of 99 Iowa counties in the County Health Rankings were: adult smoking, physical inactivity, excessive drinking, alcohol-impaired driving deaths (all of Iowa is nearly double the national rate), sexually transmitted infections and teen births. Ironically, we do score high in one protective factor in this area: access to exercise opportunities.

Life expectancy studies also look at social and economic factors. Adults living in poverty are almost five times more likely to report being in poor or fair health than more affluent adults. Our metro area median household income is $50,650, $4,000 less than the state median of $54,800, which means that a family stands an equal chance of being above or under that figure. But there is another measurement that tells me more about our families than median income. Our average income per person (per capita) is $23,573 – compared to $28,872 for the state of Iowa.

Data that describes our weakest economic indicators can be found in materials provided by Comprehensive Strategy, a group of individuals from public and private community organizations who attempt to generate data and practices that generate positive youth development in the tri-state region. Fully 67.8 percent of Sioux City Community School District students are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program – only Des Moines has a higher rate. The teen birth rate, while high, is at an eight-year low. Although we do have a high incidence of single parent families, of all Sioux City families with children under 18, 11.4 percent live in poverty while 7.9 percent is the state rate. Thankfully, we do enjoy a very low unemployment rate (3.7 percent at the time of the study), but 12.9 percent of employed don’t have health insurance. What this tells me is that many Sioux Cityans, though working, are still struggling.

There is opportunity for change in all of these areas. Behaviorally, we could all make a resolution for the new year to curb destructive health behaviors and take advantage of our exercise options – consider our improved trails and soon-to-open Cone Park for a start.

And at this time of year, please be kind and even generous, if you can, to the parents of our youth. They are bearing the brunt of our economic low points and their vulnerability means they can’t afford to have even one sick day away from work.

When we help families at the economic bottom succeed, the more they’re able to work, which increases their earning power and their resiliency. It may not be just a quality-of-life matter; it could mean quantity of life, as well.

Next week: Jim Wharton

Katie Colling is the executive director of Women Aware, a private nonprofit agency. She was elected to two consecutive terms on the Woodbury County Extension Council and serves on several civic-organization boards. She and her husband, Ron, live in Sioux City.

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