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Study links health disparities to life expectancy

2nd July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

Health disparities in the city’s poorest neighborhoods and the appended problems of access to quality food, unsafe streets and the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline are the subject of a government-funded study released in June chronicling the long-standing problems, but for the first time linking these issues to significantly lower rates of life expectancy for residents living in low-income areas of Orleans Parish.

Depending on your zip code, researchers found that residents in some poor enclaves live as much as 25 years less than those in more affluent areas of the city. Stating that the figures are cause for alarm, Loyola University professor Dr. Andre Perry, who helped lead the research team that collected data for the study, says, “There is no justification for these gaps when people are separated by only a few city blocks,” referring to the sometimes short distance between poor residents who live shorter lives and their well-off neighbors.

Perry attributed the chasm between a reduced life span and longevity to a number of factors, including limited access to health care, the dearth of quality food in low-income neighborhoods and environmental factors like stress that ramp up rates of heart disease when residents live in communities afflicted with high crime.

The rate of death due to heart disease is nearly five times higher in the city’s poorest zip code than in other areas of the city, according to the study, entitled “Place Matters for Health in Orleans Parish: Ensuring Opportunities for Good Health for All.” Similarly, stroke mortality rates in poor neighborhoods also outpace other parts of Orleans Parish.

The federal government defines poverty as a family of four living on an annual income below $23, 050 and an individual who makes less than $11,170 a year. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that statewide, from 2006–2010, 18.1 percent of Louisianans were living in poverty, while in Orleans Parish that number climbed to 24.4 percent for the same period.

Researchers were also able to link educational achievement with poverty levels and health outcomes. “The lowest levels of educational attainment by census tract (as many as 72 percent of residents without a high school education) correlate with the highest levels of community risk factors and the lowest life expectancy rates,” the study found.

Portions of the Tremé neighborhood encompassing the 70112 zip code boast a life expectancy rate of about 54 years, while Lakeview residents of zip code 70124 can be expected to live as long as 80 years. The distance between the two communities is just over 10 minutes by car.

“These are not naturally occurring health disparities; they are the result of residential segregation,” asserts Dr. Brian Smedley, who heads the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies, which partnered with Perry’s research team to produce the study.

“There has been a narrative that poor people are sick because they did something wrong or because they don’t take care of themselves. That narrative places heavy emphasis on individual responsibility and while no one wants to take away individual responsibility, it is important to realize that this is a result of neighborhood conditions.”

Researchers also furnished recommendations for policymakers to help abate the health crisis poor New Orleanians face, including making sure that schools “dedicate appropriate resources to social-emotional wellness,” providing funding for reentry programs for former prisoners “that meet the needs of the New Orleans metro area,” and authorizing the creation of “system-wide student satisfaction surveys that incorporate students as researchers,” according to the study.

Finding ways, Perry notes, to keep students in school, providing better access to mental health services and creating job programs for the formerly incarcerated will help put a dent in the environmental factors that contribute to increased poverty.

Dr. Marsha Broussard of the Louisiana Public Health Institute, and a member of the New Orleans-based research team that put together the study, says her group plans to tackle the tangential issue of high expulsion and suspension rates at area schools.

Broussard says repeat expulsions and suspensions, coupled with “draconian” disciplinary measures, add fuel to the city’s dropout rate and lead to increased unemployment, criminal activity and, ultimately, poor personal health.

“We have to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by working with schools and school districts to address mental health issues and suspension and expulsion rates. These issues interrupt the success of our students and lead to poor health outcomes – both physically and financially.”

Further research is planned, according to Perry, that will provide a cost-benefit analysis of the recommendations outlined in the study, connecting policymakers with the research and the impact – both fiscal and social – of implementing the proposals.

The full study can be found online at www.jointcenter.org.

This article was originally published in the July 2, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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