Creating a healthy life for all

It’s just a few miles from Buckhead to Vine City, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived as an adult. But when it comes to health, the communities are worlds apart. If you are born in Buckhead, you can expect to see your 84th birthday, but for babies born in Vine City, only their 72nd.

This staggering disparity was made clear in a new map released recently by Virginia Commonwealth University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The map — which shows life expectancy by ZIP code across the Atlanta region — demonstrates short distances between large gaps in health.

Where we live affects our health and well-being in multiple ways. For example, education and income are directly linked to health. Communities with weaker tax bases cannot support high-quality schools. Jobs are often scarce in neighborhoods with struggling economies. Neighborhoods with unreliable or expensive transit options can isolate residents from good jobs, health and child care, and social services. And in many ZIP codes, stores and restaurants selling unhealthy food outnumber markets with fresh produce or restaurants with affordable, nutritious food.

Many times, where you live will determine whether your children have access to quality education and safe places to play, or whether they attend school where 40 percent of children do not read at grade level and teachers spend more time dealing with the impact of exposure to violence than teaching.

Regardless of what we map in the Atlanta region — poverty rates, unemployment, educational attainment, HIV rates or crime — disparities show up between the same neighborhoods.

In 2011, Atlanta leaders came together to say there must be a better way forward. We realize the problems are complex; the only chance we have in closing the gaps is if we work together.

Through this common mission, the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement, ARCHI, was formed. It’s a partnership of hospitals, public health officials, local governments, regional planners, businesses, academics, non-profits and philanthropic groups. Led by the Atlanta Regional Commission, United Way and Georgia Health Policy Center, ARCHI engages partners and community members to increase opportunities for healthy behaviors and pathways to family self-sufficiency, and to support innovative ways to finance and deliver health care.

ARCHI brings together partners who have a stake in improving our neighborhoods — those planning parks and sidewalks, running local schools and hospitals, creating jobs and developing affordable housing. We are starting to see meaningful changes that could help change the region’s health gaps.

We’re on the ground in the Tri-Cities area of College Park, East Point and Hapeville, where new data show a life expectancy of 71 years. We’re attacking factors that contribute to poor health on multiple fronts.

Grady Healthcare System is modifying its hours and services to accommodate residents who visit its neighborhood clinic. Community development and health partners are working to improve access to safe, affordable housing in East Point. The United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta is providing funds to move the needle in education, income, health and housing stabilization.

Piedmont Healthcare is implementing non-clinical interventions, such as support for community gardens, to promote health. And Morehouse School of Medicine has a neighborhood project that targets 40 to 75 year olds with risk factors for chronic disease.

Because the health of neighborhoods is shaped by a web of factors, everyone has a role to play, from residents to policymakers. At ARCHI, we believe these changes and other coordinated efforts will add up to improvements over time. They will affect the fabric of our communities and create an Atlanta where everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, can have a healthy life.

Karen J. Minyard is director of the Georgia Health Policy Center at Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Mary Wilson is a community builder/activist.

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