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Bringing ‘A Healthier Life’ to Your Neighborhood

Walking to work or taking public transportation increases physical activity and reduces air pollution, which reduces the risks of diseases like diabetes and asthma.
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President and CEO, Heluna Health
2018-06-20T10:42:54-04:00
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Education is a critical predictor of health and lifelong success. Crédito: Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images

When you think about tracking your health, where do you look? If you are like most people, you look to your ‘numbers’: your weight, your blood pressure, your cholesterol—even, perhaps, your hemoglobin A1C (a long-term count of the sugar in your blood). These are all extremely important measures of your health.

Now consider another set of numbers that may, in fact, be even more important for your lifelong health: your zip code, the number of playgrounds in your community, the distance to your nearest farmer’s market and your reading level. These may not seem like numbers related to health, but it turns out that they are critically linked to whether you get sick and how long you live.

Researchers are learning that some of the most basic elements of our lives within our communities—something called the ‘social determinants of health’—may matter even more than the actual health care we receive at the doctor’s office when it comes to living longer and healthier lives. In fact, the social and environmental aspects of our lives may matter up to twice as much as the actual health care we receive, according to one recent study.*

In some ways, this is very good news. It means that the factors that shape your health are not only within you; they are literally all around you. With this knowledge there are so many simple steps you can take to improve both your own health and the health of your neighborhood or entire community. You know these ‘social determinants of health’ as, simply, the facts of your life: where you go to school, whether you go to school, whether you walk to work or take a bus, how hard it is to pay the bills, or whether you can walk around at night without feeling afraid.

Walking to work or taking public transportation increases physical activity and reduces air pollution, which reduces the risks of diseases like diabetes and asthma. Volunteering or getting involved in civic action in your community strengthens well-being and social equity. Every action like this adds up to a healthier you, while also contributing to a healthier community.

At Heluna Health, the national, nonprofit agency that I lead in Southern California, we help to better understand and address many of these social determinants of health. Through our network of ‘Women, Infants and Children’ or WIC centers, we teach pregnant women and young children, ages 0 to 5, about important steps each person can take to help make their communities—including their own families—healthier. Steps like finding, accessing, or advocating for farmer’s markets; finding or creating safe places to exercise as a family; and creating or participating in breastfeeding support groups for new moms.

You can find out more about these and other WIC resources, like vouchers for free healthy foods, at www.phfewic.org.

Because education is a critical predictor of health and lifelong success—even starting before the preschool years—we’ve created a low-cost program operating within WIC that helps parents recognize key developmental milestones and encourages daily reading at home. The program includes free books for all of our ‘Little by Little School Readiness Program’ families.

And to address the violence impacting some of our neighborhoods, our Youth Development Services team provides case management services to teens and young adults who have associated with gangs in order to help interrupt the cycle of revenge that can plague some of our streets.

We address these social and environmental aspects of people’s lives because they create a context for an entire community where health and lifelong success can be possible. You can address them too—by looking around your community, finding items in your environment that you believe are roadblocks to health or success, and working to remove them. You can be the first person, where you live, to ignite the change that you wish to see for your own community. And in doing so, you can also be the one to give both you and your entire neighborhood a healthier life.

Dr. Blayne Cutler is a public health physician, writer and the President and CEO of Heluna Health. For more information about Heluna Health, visit www.helunahealth.org.

Citation: *Schroeder, CA (2007). We Can Do Better—Improving the Health of the American People. New England Journal of Medicine. 357:1221-8.


This article is published in collaboration with Univision Contigo: Univision's social responsibility team. Visit univision.com/contigo and find tips and resources that will help you have a healthier life. #MásSaludable

Note: We selected this Op-Ed to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision News.


This article is published in collaboration with Univision Contigo: Univision's social responsibility team. Visit univision.com/contigo and find tips and resources that will help you have a healthier life. #MásSaludable


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