Does where you live affect how long you live?

Eight Forty-Eight explores a new study on health and location

August 7, 2012

Caroline O'Donovan

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Dr. Linda Rae Murray, Chief Medical Officer for the Cook County Deparment of Public Health, asked me to think about the department as though I was a plant. Two plants, she said, can get the same amount of sunlight and the same amount of rain, but if one is growing in nutrient-rich soil and the other is growing in poor soil, they’re not going to grow the same.

Place Matters: Cook County is a study recently published by the Health Policy Institute aimed at discerning which neighborhoods would be the rich soil in this metaphor and which would be nutrient-poor. It’s the first study of its kind, according to Dr. Murray, that goes into such a small gradient with this data. What they found is that in some neighborhoods in Cook County, where you live can take up to as many as ten years off of your life.

When most people think about this study, Dr. Murray said, they “think that Mexicans living in Little Village have twice the rate of diabetes because they eat tortillas, but that’s not the only thing that’s going on.” What she means is that if you live in a poor, food-insecure neighborhood, even if you are actively trying to exercise and eat fresh fruits and vegetables, you still won’t be as healthy as your counterpart in a wealthier, whiter neighborhood.

The Place Matters team in Cook County is heavily focused on food policy right now because there are so many basic solutions available to us. Dr. Murray, a practicing physician, says she once saw a diabetes education group become advocates to the grocers’ association for putting more fresh fruits and veggies in corner stores. In Philadelphia, not only are healthier foods in local stores subsidized, but so are things like coolers for keeping them fresh. And then there are urban agriculture programs, like the collaboration between Pedro Albizu Campos High School and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center near Humboldt Park in which students work to grow food for their otherwise food-insecure community.

The central finding of Place Matters: Cook County — that segregation leads to poverty which leads to poor health which shortens life spans — is probably not surprising to anyone. The study is an essential tool for those advocating for greater health equity, a mission that the World Health Organization made central to its goals in 2008. “Poor health is no fault of the individuals that live in these communities,” said Dr. Brian Smedley of the Health Policy Institute. He and Dr. Murray will join Eight Forty-Eight Tuesday morning and explain not only why we should be surprised by the findings of this study, but also what community leaders and legislators can do about it.