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Where you live could determine how long you stay independent, new study says

city zip codes
Posted at 11:00 AM, Sep 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-14 13:00:52-04

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Think about your address, your zip code. Maybe you’re there because you moved for work, or your family has never known another one, or maybe you're there because you had no where else to go.

Of all the factors that determine it, your zip code may actually be a major factor in how long you live independently.

"Like many studies, one finding leads to another leads to another," said Dr. Thomas Gill, geriatrician and professor at Yale.

For the last 22 years, Dr. Gill and his team of researchers have been following a group of more than 750 senior citizens, interviewing them every month and documenting changes in their functions. More than 100 papers have been published about different findings from this study.

The latest study paired their research with what’s called the Area Deprivation Index, a tool by the University of Wisconsin that quantifies the level of advantage or disadvantage a neighborhood has down to the zip code.

"We compared those who were living in neighborhoods that were disadvantaged versus those who were in more advantaged neighborhoods and found fairly striking findings," said Dr. Gill.

What they found is that those in their study, living in more advantaged neighborhoods, were able to stay independent for more than two years than those living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

They judge independence on “the big four” – whether they can walk, bathe, get in and out of a chair, and dress independently.

Dr. Gill foresees these findings having both policies, such as making a case for more available housing in advantaged areas and clinical applications.

"Just making clinicians aware that it's not necessarily individual decisions that are leading to these poor outcomes, but there's this overlay of disadvantage at a higher level, at a neighborhood level that are posing really immense challenges," he said.

When an older adult loses independence, it can have severe financial impacts on their family. A 2015 survey reported that 36% of caregivers have moderate to high levels of financial strain, having to spend thousands every year out of pocket.

So, how can you try to prevent losing independence for as long as possible? Dr. Gill recommends 150 minutes of exercise a week, starting as soon as you can, and that exercise can be as simple as walking.

"Persons who can incorporate physical activity into their day to day activities or their week to week, even before they retire and advanced into older age groups, if they can maintain those habits going forward, that probably there's more evidence to support that than almost any other type of medical intervention," said Dr. Gill.