Skip to Content
MIT News: 77 Mass Ave

Location, location, location

Moving to a new area can significantly affect how long you live, a study of Medicare data reveals.

October 26, 2021

Moving from one US metro area to another can increase a 65-year-old’s life expectancy by 1.1 years, according to an innovative study coauthored by MIT economist Amy Finkelstein.

Researchers have long observed significant regional variation in life expectancy in the US, often attributing it to “health capital”—different tendencies toward obesity, smoking, and related behavioral factors. But by analyzing health records of Medicare recipients who did and did not move from one region to another, Finkelstein and her colleagues were able to separate the role of health capital from the role of environment itself.

map of life span in USA

“The idea is to take two elderly people from a given origin—say, Boston,” Finkelstein says. “One moves to low-­mortality Minneapolis; one moves to high-mortality Houston. We then compare how long each lives after they move.”

All told, the study found that urban areas including New York, San Francisco, Miami, and Chicago have positive effects on longevity while a large swath of the South and Southwest have negative effects. These results deliver important new information about large-scale drivers of US health outcomes—and raise the question of what it is about different places that affects older people’s life expectancy. One clear possibility is the nature of available medical care. Others include climate, pollution, crime, traffic safety, and more.

The scholars estimate that health capital accounts for about 70% of differences in longevity while location effects account for about 15%. “Yes, health capital is important, but yes, place effects also matter,” Finkelstein says.

She and colleagues are now working on a pair of new studies about health care to see what impact place-based differences may have; one study focuses on doctors, and the other looks at the prescription opioid epidemic.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Large language models can do jaw-dropping things. But nobody knows exactly why.

And that's a problem. Figuring it out is one of the biggest scientific puzzles of our time and a crucial step towards controlling more powerful future models.

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

How scientists traced a mysterious covid case back to six toilets

When wastewater surveillance turns into a hunt for a single infected individual, the ethics get tricky.

Google DeepMind’s new generative model makes Super Mario–like games from scratch

Genie learns how to control games by watching hours and hours of video. It could help train next-gen robots too.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.