DNA or Zip: Which Code Really Determines Your Well-Being?

8.21.13 | Just as where you live helps determine the odds of your upward mobility, your zip code is apparently more important than your genetic code in determining your health.

Research keeps turning up a strong link between poor neighborhoods and poor health. The latest comes in a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America. “Overcoming Obstacles to Health in 2013 and Beyond,” (PDF) argues that income segregation is just as bad for people’s health as it is for the nation.

Maryland’s Montgomery County and Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax Counties can expect to live six to seven years longer than babies born to residents of Washington, D.C.—just a few subway stops away.

Even more dramatic differences are seen in New Orleans, where the average life expectancy at birth varies by as much as 25 years across nearby neighborhoods just a few miles apart.

That health disparity takes a large economic toll: “Reducing avoidable health differences—both between the United States and other wealthy countries, as well as within our own population—will not only improve quality of life for tens of millions of Americans, but may also help bring escalating medical care costs under control,” the report notes.

And, in an echo of the Equality of Opportunity Project study:

Children may be particularly vulnerable to unhealthy conditions in their communities, with consequences for health both in childhood and later in life. Escaping health-damaging physical and social environments can be challenging because these communities typically lack employment opportunities and services—including good schools—that can lead to upward mobility. There may also be fewer positive role models for children and youth, and more peer pressure encouraging risky behaviors. Children in more supportive neighborhoods are more likely to receive adult guidance and less likely to engage in health-damaging behaviors like smoking. [emphasis added]

BRR-ers may well know that health and community connect through environment, geography, neighborhood resources, parenting, crime, and violence, but how much violence or pollution does it take to have an effect, and how long does the effect linger?

“Evidence tells us,” the report says, “that to improve health we need to think more broadly about policies that will improve people’s daily lives and the broader social and economic contexts that shape them. Strategies that focus only on improving living conditions without addressing the underlying issues, such as poverty and racial inequality, may not be enough.”

The RWJF report prompted the Chicago Fed to convene a two-day conference. The Chicago Regional Healthy Communities Summit “considered more deeply the common interests among community development and health-focused organizations in the region.” The long-term goal “is to make health-focused considerations a common aspect of community asset development and strategy.”

If you want to learn more about community development and health, mark your calendar for Tuesday, August 13: A “Connecting Communities” audio conference from 2 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. EDT follows up on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report by exploring how to bring together public health and community development efforts in zip codes where both are lacking.

Registration is required. To register, go to the Connecting Communities website and enter your email address in the “Join the Call!” box on the right side of the page.  Once you’ve registered, you’ll receive an email containing the call-in information.


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