VCU Researchers Study Health Disparities in Three Communities Across the Country

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This map of Alameda shows the neighborhood-level determinants of life expectancy

This map shows the access to food providers and recreational facilities in South Delta, Miss., and its relationship to health

Researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Human Needs have released the last three studies of an eight-part collaborative project with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Health Policy Institute and the Virginia Network for Geospatial Health Research.

These studies assessed population health inequities and related social and economic conditions in urban and rural communities across the United States. Working alongside the project partners were eight “Place Matters” teams consisting of individuals who work and live in each of the communities studied.

The new reports address conditions in Oakland in Alameda County, Calif.; Boston, Mass.; and South Delta, Miss. Previously released reports addressed conditions in San Joaquin Valley, Calif.; Orleans Parish, La.; Cook County, Ill.; Bernalillo County, N.M.; and Baltimore, Md.

The project was funded by a subaward from the National Institutes of Health. The Health Policy Institute was the prime and also receives funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for the Place Matters initiative.

“As with the prior reports from this project, the research conducted in these communities was not conducted solely for academic purposes but also as a tool for concerned community members,” said Amber Haley, M.P.H., research epidemiologist at VCU and member of the VCU Center on Human Needs, which is part of the VCU School of Medicine. “Our goal is to inform decision-makers about the importance of community conditions in shaping health outcomes.”

The center’s technical reports have been translated into a policy briefs that have been issued for each community by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Health Policy Institute. Read the policy briefs at these links: Alameda, Boston, South Delta.

Researchers collaborating on these reports within the VCU Center on Human Needs included Haley; Emily Zimmerman, Ph.D., senior researcher; Steven H. Woolf, M.D., M.P.H., director of the center; and Benjamin Evans, M.H.S.A., policy research manager.

Oakland, Alameda County, California

This report examines the relationships between public safety, socioeconomic opportunity, the built environment, educational conditions and life expectancy in Alameda County, Calif., home to the city of Oakland.

“This report was meant to build on some of the previous work in Alameda County that focused on social determinants of health by examining characteristics that support healthy neighborhoods in the county’s lower resource area, Oakland City,” said Haley.

The VCU team found that numerous conditions associated with better health were clustered in a few Oakland neighborhoods. On average, life expectancy was 10 years longer in neighborhoods with higher opportunities. Life expectancy varied more than 20 years between high and low resource census tracts.

Boston, Massachusetts

This report examines the relationships between social capital and health outcomes in Boston.

“The Boston team was interested in looking at elements of so-called social capital, such as social trust and voter participation, and how they are related to better health outcomes, such as longer lives and lower rates of lead poisoning in children,” said Zimmerman, lead author of the report.

The VCU team examined perceptions of trust and safety among residents of different neighborhoods and found large variation across Boston. In addition, communities with lower levels of trust and friendship with neighbors also tended to worse health outcomes.

South Delta, Mississippi

This report examines health disparities for two rural counties in the South Delta of Mississippi: Sharkey and Issaquena counties. Local team members were interested in the risks of chronic disease in places with poor access to healthy food and safe, well-maintained places to exercise.

“Sharkey and Issaquena counties only have a few thousand residents, with a significant portion living in one central town, but a large amount spread out across the rural Delta. When a population is that geographically dispersed, it is much more difficult to strategically locate community assets like food sources and places for recreational activity. Research links these resources with healthy behaviors such as eating fruits and vegetables and exercise,” said Evans.

The report notes that there are only two grocery stores in Sharkey County and none in Issaquena County. In both counties, areas for exercise were limited to sporadic walking paths, with little diversity in the types of activities available.

“A common theme across all reports was the large differences in life expectancy within each community depending on the neighborhood in which a person lived. Life expectancy in the Mississippi Delta varies by 10 years depending on the county,” said Evans. “Within Oakland, life expectancy varied by as much as 24 years depending on the census tract. The distribution of social, demographic and economic characteristics across the communities and how they related to differences in health and longevity were common themes across all eight reports.”

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