Life expectancy in Denver varies by as much as 13 years depending on what part of the city you live in

This is a story about maps and death.

Data Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Esteban L. HernandezApr. 05, 2021, 5:00 a.m.

As the woman sat next to her husband at a local meeting, Jayla Sanchez-Warren noticed that she would answer questions for him as soon as he started talking.

Sanchez-Warren, who was leading the community meeting for older adults, thought it was funny. The two seemed close and upbeat. Both were in their 80s.

After talking to her a bit more, Sanchez-Warren, whose official title is director of the Area Agency on Aging at the Denver Regional Council of Governments, remembers the woman breaking down into tears. The woman, a Latina, had recently learned her husband had diabetes. During a previous cooking class, she had essentially been told the food she had been feeding him — mostly homemade tortillas and beans — was worsening his condition.

It was too many carbs and not enough fresh food. The woman thought because the food was homemade, it would be healthier.

“If you don’t have a lot of money, it’s expensive to buy fruits and vegetables,” Sanchez-Warren said. “It’s a lot cheaper to buy beans and rice.”

Sanchez-Warren’s agency focuses on helping people ages 60 and older, providing things like meals, transportation, health and wellness programs, and caregiver support for older adults. The agency serves about 32,000 people annually in the metro area.

Sanchez-Warren said she has noticed that people of color and low-income folks tend to use her services earlier in their lives, when they’re in their early and mid-70s, than white or wealthier people. She said that for a lot of her customers, the council’s programs might be the first time they learn about things like nutrition.

She said that many social services focus on children and the elderly, not middle-aged adults.

“That’s a huge gap,” Sanchez-Warren said.

During that gap, people can develop poor eating habits, often because they don’t have access to information about nutrition or to fresh food. That can all impact their life expectancy.

A map the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released in 2018, the most recent available, shows life expectancy can range from 72.8 years old in Globeville — the lowest in Denver — to 85.9 years old in Hilltop, the highest. The citywide average is 79.7 years, which is comparable to the statewide life expectancy of 80.5 years.

Data Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

So what is life expectancy, exactly?

According to Vital Statistics Program Manager Kirk Bol, who helps oversee this kind of stuff for the state’s health department, “What it ultimately represents is the average number of years a person could expect to live if they spent their entire life in this area.”

Bol said CDPHE came up with its map using Census data and death certificates registered with the state’s health department. Bol said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will take information from states to create a larger picture of mortality in the U.S.

Life expectancy data isn’t exactly broken down by neighborhood, Bol said. It’s actually cut up according to Census tracts, which are federal geographical tags Bol said usually encompass about 5,000 to 10,000 people. Denver has 144 Census tracts, much more than the city’s 78 neighborhoods. The Census offers life expectancy data for 130 of its 144 tracts.

Geek out with us every day.
Get Denver news, maps and more in our free and delightful newsletter.Enter your email here…SIGN ME UP!

Why are the differences in life expectancy so stark in Denver?

It’s all about genetics, access and long-standing inequality, said Metropolitan State University of Denver professor Amy Dore, whose work focuses on health disparities and long-term care.

For example, someone who has a full-time job may have better access to transportation since they can afford it, which means it’s easier for them to visit a grocery store where they can get fresh, healthy food. Someone who doesn’t have reliable transportation might rely more on fast food or food from a corner convenience store. Or, someone might live in an area with significant environmental stressors, like high air pollution. Because of historic and current systemic racism, a resident’s race and/or ethnicity often factors into whether they have access to a car or a full-time job or clean air.

More: Mapping where housing and health crises collide in Colorado.

“I would look at it as the resources people have to make those choices,” Dore said. “We are looking at education. We are looking at where they live, we are looking at what they have available even where they live. So things like infrastructure, we’re looking at built environments, and having the safe spaces that you feel you can participate in life, like we all dream of doing.”

Sanchez-Warren noted how zip codes can be more important than your genetic code when talking about life expectancy.

“Life expectancy is tied to living standards,” Sanchez-Warren said, listing off things like access to healthcare, education, and housing. “So when you don’t have those, or when you have fewer of those (options), your life expectancy is less.”

Dore points to the I-70 corridor and its environmental impact as an example of something that could potentially affect life expectancy. The construction work on the corridor has been a major source of stress for people who live nearby. They say they experience things like noise pollution and physical vibrations from the project. Residents there even sued the Federal Highway Administration in 2017 to stop the highway’s expansion, citing its environmental impact.

The highway passes through Globeville, which has the lowest life expectancy rate in the city. It’s also one of the poorest and least-educated neighborhoods in Denver.

A closer look at Denver's life expectancy data. Lighter colors denote shorter lifespans. Globeville is the light-colored tract surrounding the intersection of I-70 and I-25.
A closer look at Denver’s life expectancy data. Lighter colors denote shorter lifespans. Globeville is the light-colored tract surrounding the intersection of I-70 and I-25. Data Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Pollution has long plagued the area, and a study in 2014 from the city said Globeville and Elyria-Swansea experience “higher incidence of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and asthma,” than other neighborhoods in Denver. (The study also noted that while the two neighborhoods were closer to air pollution due to their proximity to highways, the average annual air pollution rate wasn’t higher than other areas of the city.)

“Opportunities for outdoor physical activity are also limited in the neighborhoods due to disconnected streets and sidewalks, lack of nearby goods and services, and concerns about crime and safety,” the study read.

Has COVID-19 impacted the city’s life expectancy?

Overall, people are living longer than in other times in history. But big public health crisis can impact numbers. Life expectancy in the U.S. decreased in 2015 due to an increase in drug overdoses and suicides. And the CDC released a report last month showing the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by a year during the first half of 2020, from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 in 2020. More than 525,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. More than 6,000 Coloradans have died from the disease.

More: This shape has helped explain Denver’s past, present and likely its future.

It’s too early to tell whether deaths from the coronavirus pandemic are impacting Denver’s life expectancy. Local data shows more than 750 Denverites have died either directly from COVID-19 or with the disease. That number includes probable cases as well.

Bol said the state will start figuring out the impact COVID-19 had on the state’s life expectancy this spring or summer. Data from 2020 is still being processed.

That work should be done by May, he said, which could help generate a new life expectancy estimate for the state and some larger counties, including Denver.


8 big things you need to know about Colorado’s $34 billion state budget (State won’t get instructions on spending the federal funds until after the session is over, likely leading to an August session)

The legislature has hundreds of millions more to spend than it was anticipating after Colorado’s economy fared better than expected during the pandemic.

Jesse Paul, Apr 7, 2021, Colorado Sun

Colorado state representatives and staff mingle in the Colorado Capitol’s House chambers during the first day of Colorado’s special legislative session on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers this week began debating the state’s $34.1 billion budget, which helps chart a path out of the coronavirus crisis and sets aside millions of dollars for equity-related initiatives and a historic sum for future economic downturns.

The legislature was able to reverse funding cuts made as the pandemic descended upon the state last year, and lawmakers now have hundreds of millions more to spend than they were anticipating because Colorado’s economy fared better than expected during the pandemic. 

“It is an interesting time for the budget given the gravity and the extent of the cuts that were necessitated last year compared to this year,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, which writes the budget. “It turns out those (cuts) were not only not necessary, but that we could actually build upon restoring those reductions and be able to allocate additional resources for the state’s most pressing needs.”

The bipartisan budget measure, Senate Bill 205, is expected to land on the Senate floor on Thursday before heading to the House next week. 

We talked with state budget writers and combed through the budget bill to determine what you need to know about the spending:

MORE: Colorado’s state budget drives decisions that affect us all, but it’s long and complicated. We’re here to help.

$3.8 billion

That’s how much more money lawmakers are spending in the 2021-22 fiscal year than they did for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. 

The 2021-22 fiscal year budget is $34.1 billion. The budget was $30.3 billion for the current fiscal year. In the 2019-20 fiscal year, the budget was $30.5 billion.

Part of the reason the budget is so much larger is because lawmakers last year made cuts that ultimately were unnecessary. The leftover money is reflected in the new budget and allowed lawmakers to “fill the gap temporarily.” 

Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, said he’s concerned about how much money was available for lawmakers to spend.

“My least favorite part is we had too much money,” he said. “I know that sounds weird, but I’m still a fiscal conservative and I just have a hard time dealing with (having) so much money that we just cannot be frugal. We cannot be good stewards of money because there’s too much of it.”

State Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, joins members and guests in the senate chambers as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That said, this extra revenue is a one-time boon and lawmakers can’t rely on so much money in future years.

“This budget does prepare us for the reality that revenues are picking back up,” Moreno said. “They’re not quite to a level where they can sustain a budget that we were at prior to the pandemic.”

The American Rescue Plan

Colorado’s state coffers received $3.9 billion as part of Congress’ recently passed coronavirus stimulus bill, called the American Rescue Plan

That money, however, is not reflected in the total amount of the state’s 2021-22 budget. That’s because lawmakers are still working to determine how to spend the money. A statewide listening tour is underway for people who’d like to submit ideas.

Lawmakers are taking that cash infusion into account, though, as they think through their spending priorities. 

$800 million for a state stimulus package

Colorado’s new budget sets aside $800 million — up from the $700 million initially planned — for a package of bills aimed at helping people weather the lasting economic and health effects of the coronavirus crisis. 

The legislation is still being rolled out, but the largest chunk of spending will be on infrastructure projects, including pricey repairs to the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels on Interstate 70.

The Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

House Speaker Alec Garnett said a bill introduced this week will allow restaurants to keep up to $70,000 a month in what they would normally owe to the state from sales tax in the coming summer months.

“Those months are key,” said Garnett, a Denver Democrat. “As the weather continues to warm up, as people continue to get vaccinated (you’ll) start to see a lot more economic activity.”

Garnett also touted a measure that will help the state attract conferences and events back to Colorado to spur economic activity on “main streets across the state.”

$480 million for the negative factor

The negative factor, also known as the budget stabilization factor, is Colorado’s annual K-12 school funding shortfall. It was created during the Great Recession to allow state lawmakers to legally withhold money owed to school districts despite funding requirements in the Colorado Constitution. 

State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, said the $480 million being set aside in the budget next fiscal year for the negative factor will cover about half of what’s owed to schools next year. The rest will come from a $1.1 billion infusion from the American Rescue Plan.

“We have essentially wiped out the negative factor for the next two (fiscal) years,” Hansen said, explaining that he’s hopeful the money will allow schools to catch up children who have fallen behind because of COVID-19.

MORE: A guide to how Amendment 23, “the budget stabilization factor” and “the negative factor” shape education spending in Colorado

Hansen said lawmakers now need to look toward fiscal years 2023-24 and 2024-25 and how to tackle the negative factor in those years. Colorado lawmakers will still owe schools at least $572 million in those years.

The budget would also set aside $100 million for the state education fund as a rainy day pool to be drawn from in future years. 

Chalkbeat reports that the budget also calls for the state to spend $5 billion on K-12 education, which means schools will get about $7.8 billion when districts add in their own tax revenue. The sum represents a nearly 9% increase over the current fiscal year, translating into an average per-pupil allocation for districts of $8,857.

A 3% raise for state employees

The budget calls for giving Colorado’s roughly 30,000 state employees a 3% raise, which is more than the 2.05% raise proposed by Gov. Jared Polis.

Why the higher amount?

“We looked at the inflation numbers and they were above 2.5%,” Hansen said. “And we had a situation where the salary survey was showing that state employees were significantly below market.”

Colorado WINS, the union representing state employees, said it is pleased with the raise.

“We’re glad that it’s there,” said Hilary Glasgow, who leads Colorado WINS. “We were glad for the 3%.”

Want exclusive Colorado political news and analysis? Subscribe here to get The Unaffiliated, the twice-weekly political newsletter from The Colorado Sun.

The budget also restores the legislature’s $225 million annual distribution to the Public Employees Retirement Association, the state employees’ pension fund, but not until the 2022-23 fiscal year. Lawmakers are putting off the spending for another year because PERA is in better shape than expected and they feel it can wait for the infusion.

Lawmakers are, however, setting aside money from this year’s windfall for PERA that can be tapped even further down the line.

“We actually walked away, on top of that, with about $380 million to meet the state’s future PERA obligation,” which will take pressure off of future legislatures, Moreno said.

“Unheard of” reserve savings

The budget sets aside about $1.75 billion for Colorado’s reserve fund, which is there to help lawmakers deal with economic downturns or unexpected state expenses. 

“I think a 13.5% reserve is unheard of,” Moreno said. “My entire time in the Capitol has been single digits.”

Hansen called the savings “historic.”

Colorado state Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, leads the Senate Appropriations Committee on the first day of Colorado’s 73rd legislative session at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We haven’t had that level of reserves in a very long time,” he said. “I don’t know the exact year, but it’s been decades.”

In the 2022-23 fiscal year, lawmakers are planning to go even further with a 15% budget reserve. Hansen thinks it’s needed to contend with the “massive amount of economic uncertainty right now.” 

$20 million more for people with developmental disabilities

One of the most popular budget items among the six members of the Joint Budget Committee is the $20 million line item to create more than 500 new around-the-clock care slots for people with developmental disabilities

“That buys about a quarter of the people who were waiting for state services on the (intellectual disabilities) waitlist,” Hansen said. “I think that’s an important highlight.”

Rankin said that’s his favorite part of the 2021-22 budget.

“I think you’ll hear that from a lot of us,” he said.

Millions for equity initiatives

State budget writers made equity a big part of their spending plans for the next fiscal year. While many of the initiatives have yet to be unveiled as part of the $800 million state stimulus package, lawmakers are highlighting one higher education initiative as proof of their commitment. 

The budget sends about $100 million extra to the state’s colleges and universities to help first-generation, underrepresented and Pell Grant-eligible students.  

“Those are the students who are having the most difficulty staying in school and completing” their degrees, Hansen said.

The spending comes after lawmakers cut general fund contributions by 58% for the current fiscal year. The new budget calls for restoring those cuts, as well as the additional $100 million.

The also legislature is allowing tuition to rise by as much as 3% for students at all state-run colleges and universities but the University of Northern Colorado, which is authorized to hike tuition by 7%.