Understanding Life Expectancy and Its Role in Why Youth in Disordered Neighborhoods Engage in Risk-Taking

Some adolescents severely underestimate how old they will live to be. The average life expectancy in the United
Hourglass States is around 78 years old according to the World Bank, and 76 years for males specifically. However, some boys expect an early death. One large national study of adolescents found that 14% of youths did not expect to live past 35 years old. While it may not be immediately obvious why it is problematic that some adolescents do not expect to live very long, youth who expect to die earlier are more likely to engage in behavior that might promote that very outcome.  For example, they are more likely to attempt or plan suicide, drop out of school, and experience emotional distress. 

Importantly, how old an adolescent expects to live can be influenced by their surrounding environment, such as the neighborhood they live in. Individuals in more disordered neighborhoods tend to have a lower sense of community and collective safety and a greater likelihood of exposure to community violence. As such, living in a disordered neighborhood may signal to adolescents that they should not expect to live very long, which may in turn make them more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Our study followed over 1,000 male adolescents (ages 13-17) after their first arrest. We were interested in whether living in a disordered neighborhood was related to expectations of a shorter life even in this overall high-risk sample, and whether poorer perceived life expectancies were related to higher levels of risk taking (i.e., substance use, offending, and risky sex). We collected data at three different timepoints, each 6 months apart.

Consistent with the national life expectancy, on average, the adolescent boys in our study expected to live until around 78 years old. Yet, the boys in our study who lived in more disordered neighborhoods tended to expect shorter lives, and these expectations in turn predicted increased risk-taking behaviors 6 months later, such as more frequent cigarette use, binge drinking, non-marijuana illicit drug use, criminal offending, and casual sex. Adolescents living in disordered neighborhoods may develop beliefs about living a shorter life, which then motivate them to seek out the short-term rewards (e.g., feeling high, feeling excitement, feeling good) while overlooking the long-term costs of their risk-taking.

Why does this matter? If expecting to die earlier is one reason that adolescent boys in disordered neighborhoods engage in more risky behaviors, this helps us identify potential avenues for prevention and intervention. One study suggested that primary care physicians and school programs that teach coping and problem-solving skills could help reduce feelings of hopelessness and help youths adopt more positive life expectancies. However, many boys live in neighborhoods with serious and tangible disadvantages. Another potential intervention could therefore be to reduce neighborhood disorder through community improvement projects. Notably, most of the neighborhood disorder mentioned by the boys in our study referenced litter or graffiti rather than more serious disorder such as prostitution or needles/syringes in the streets. If even more minor forms of disorder can suggest to youth that they do not have long to live, a potential solution could be to start with municipal intervention such as cleaning away street litter or removing graffiti. In addition, increasing protective factors such as greater bonds to the community and improving the quality of youths’ schools might mitigate some of the negative impacts of living in a disordered neighborhood.

Read the related research study here.


Emily KanEmily Kan is a doctoral student in Psychological Science at UC, Irvine. Her research lies at the intersection of developmental psychology and the law, with a focus on adolescent development, justice system involvement, and substance use.

Share this post:

Comments on "Understanding Life Expectancy and Its Role in Why Youth in Disordered Neighborhoods Engage in Risk-Taking"

Comments 0-0 of 0

Please login to comment