Op-Ed

Short distances to large gaps in health in North Carolina

Babies born in Martin County can expect to reach their 73rd birthdays, while those born in Wake County can expect to live 80 years. And in the area where Wake and Durham counties meet, babies can expect to see their 88th birthdays.

These staggering disparities were made clear in new maps of Raleigh, Durham and more rural areas of Eastern North Carolina released this week by Virginia Commonwealth University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Why are some people – just a few miles apart – living shorter, sicker lives than others? It has less to do with health care than education, jobs and other conditions in their neighborhoods. For example, communities with weaker tax bases can’t support higher-quality schools. Some neighborhoods isolate residents from good jobs, health and child care, and social services. And in many places, stores and restaurants selling unhealthy food outnumber markets with fresh produce or restaurants with affordable, nutritious food.

With economic instability and a lack of services, these communities become stressed places that people want to leave – though many don’t have that choice – rather than healthy communities where people want to live. Many times, where you live will determine whether your children have access to safe places to play, or whether they attend school where 40 percent of kids do not read at grade level and teachers spend more time dealing with the effects of poverty than teaching. These factors are directly linked to health.

Where you are born shouldn’t determine your future. Several organizations across North Carolina are working to make sure all kids have bright and healthy futures. The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s $100 million Healthy Places NC initiative is specifically focused on rural areas, including Nash and Edgecombe counties, where 1 in 5 adults say they are in poor health. By comparison, in Wake County, 1 in 10 adults say they are in poor health.

We recognize there is no quick-fix or easy solution for improving the health of an entire community. It takes years to reduce chronic illness, lower obesity rates and change the way people think about health.

We’re working with county residents, local government leaders, the school system and the Chamber of Commerce to explore ways to improve residents’ health and create thriving communities. A first step is helping people understand the many factors that affect long-term health and the fact that everyone has a role in improving health – business leaders, teachers, parents and all community members.

We invited Edgecombe and Nash counties to participate in Healthy Places NC because they are a community poised for change. While the health challenges there are many, we see a community reinvigorated to tackle tough problems and to come together in new ways to make sure their children live longer, healthier lives. These are essential first steps that can seed a movement and build momentum for large-scale change.

The trust believes that to have a lasting effect on major health challenges, communities must change the way they think about improving health, realize that health is everyone’s business and develop new ways to work together to tackle health-related issues.These maps give us a jumping off point to start the conversation and tackle the issue head on.

Allen Smart is vice president of programs for Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

Learn more

Find the maps and look up your ZIP code or county at nando.com/expectancy

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