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Health: Your zip code is more important than your genetic code

King County is broken down into zip codes, to show the average life expectancy of each.
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When it comes to your health, it turns out your zip code is more important than your genetic code.

"Health care probably accounts for 10 percent of your health, your genes probably only account for 30 percent of your health. It's really behavior and your environment that account for most of your health, 60 percent," said University of Washington School of Public Health's Tao Kwan-Gett, M.D.

A color-coded map of King County shows, zip code to zip code, which neighborhoods have the highest and lowest life expectancies.

"Right at the top of the list would be Mercer Island, 98040, with a life expectancy of 86 years," said Kwan-Gett. "Then some of the communities in the south of the county, like around Auburn, their life expectancy might be a full 10 years less. Probably the area around Des Moines, Federal Way, but also central Seattle and south Seattle have areas of lower life expectancy, as well."

The map also shows which zip codes are affected most by diabetes, mental distress, and obesity. Dark blue represents the healthiest neighborhoods and red represents the least healthy. In some cases, dark blue zip codes are snuggled up right next to red ones.

So what makes a difference? Many of the red zones are also known as food deserts; there are more fast food restaurants and corner stores than grocery stores.

"In order to have a healthy diet, you have to be able to go some place to buy healthy foods," Kwan-Gett said. "If you were to look at a map of junk food prone areas, you'd find that there's an overlap with those areas of our county that have lower life expectancies."

Another major environmental factor is walkability.

"If you live in a place with safe sidewalks, parks, bicycle paths, then you're more likely to engage in those kinds of physical activities that can reduce your risk for obesity. We all know that obesity is a big risk factor for chronic heart disease and diabetes," Kwan-Gett said.

It sounds a bit simple, but moving can actually change your health and perhaps your life expectancy. Which can sometimes be a negative thing.

"Adults immigrating from a poorer country might actually have pretty good health," Kwan-Gett said. "But when they come to the United States, and settle in neighborhoods that have environments that are not as healthy, they then develop obesity and develop diabetes. They're not walking as much as they used to in their home country and not eating healthy foods like they used to."

Looking at the maps, it's pretty obvious that the wealthier neighborhoods tend to be healthier and poorer neighborhoods not as much.

Dan D'Oca, a principal urban planner at Interboro Partners in New York City, said neighborhoods are sometimes designed to keep poor people away from the resources found in wealthier areas.

"There's an example in Baltimore where you can go north on this street and on the right side is a predominantly African American neighborhood with a fairly low median income. On the left side is a predominantly white neighborhood with really fancy houses and a very high median income. If you try to make a left into the white neighborhood, you will never be able to. There is a whole arsenal of different design tactics that are done to prevent people from going into the neighborhood. You can always make a right into the poorer neighborhood. Through design they've been able to successfully keep people out of their neighborhood."

Which means that neighborhoods can be designed to create healthier atmospheres for everyone.

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