IOWA CITY — Is it possible that a ZIP code may be as important as genetics in determining someone’s health?
Collaborating to look into the question that nationally is getting more and more attention, Iowa City and the University of Iowa are examining three local neighborhoods in an effort to see if they can improve the health of those residents.
The research drew about 100 professionals — real estate agents, physicians, architects and others — to a UI symposium Friday called “Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Communities.” The symposium is part of the larger collaboration — the Invest Health initiative.
The effort works to improve health problems like asthma and mental illness in three particular Iowa City neighborhoods, identifying what barriers keep their residents from improving their health. The UI and the city received a $60,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Reinvestment Fund to start work in 2016.
“The idea is that we were going to pull stakeholders together, and pull communities together, and develop a plan that included a pipeline of projects that we could then implement to improve health in specific neighborhoods,” said Vickie Miene, co-director of the project and interim director of the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy.
To choose the specific areas the initiative would study, those involved overlaid multiple maps showing poverty levels with various health statistics. Three neighborhoods stood out.
“They’ve got lower income, some vulnerable populations. They’re typically underserved,” Miene said.
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The neighborhoods of emphasis are Pheasant Ridge, Town and Campus and Hilltop and Broadway. Three smaller neighborhoods inside those were surveyed on topics like barriers to health care, health conditions and feelings about their neighborhoods.
A total of 171 households returned surveys, representing 585 individuals. The results showed that 20 percent of respondents reported being diagnosed with asthma, while 51 percent said they were feeling “worry, sadness, anger fear or stress most days.”
Miene said the initial grant was spent on the survey and also travel so Invest Health members could learn from other communities. While some of the other 50 Invest Health communities around the country are ending their initiatives as the grants run out, Iowa City and the UI hope to find more funding opportunities to keep moving forward.
To improve the health of the neighborhoods’ residents, the Invest Health group has launched a health promotion campaign, called Seven Steps to a Healthy Home. The group also has begun other initiatives like a neighborhood connections program, which puts on community activities in the neighborhoods of focus, and a bicycle program for kids.
“We have decided here that we don’t want (Invest Health) to end. In fact, we want it to grow because it’s been such a great opportunity to bring really different groups together to have rich conversations about how to help and how to change our health outcomes in our area,” Miene said.
Invest Health is part of a larger effort nationally to study the connection between residents’ health and their neighborhoods, particularly those with lower incomes.
Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco recently studied the stress hormone cortisol in kindergartners of varying economic backgrounds.
They found that students from low-income families who lived in neighborhoods that had access to more resources like parks and healthy foods had lower levels of the hormone — and thus fewer health problems — than did other low-income students who lived in poor-quality neighborhoods, according to according to a U.S. News & World Report article.
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Those findings aligned with a 2011 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study that identified improvements in the mental and physical health of low-income people when they moved to wealthier neighborhoods through a voucher initiative, U.S. News reported.
One of the symposium’s keynote speakers — Megan Sandel, principal investigator with Children’s HealthWatch and associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health — on Friday discussed her own work in bettering health through improving neighborhoods, and homed in on the same point.
She said there are four dimensions to a neighborhood’s connection to health — quality, stability, affordability and location.
“It’s easy to focus just on one dimension,” Sandel said. “A stable, decent, affordable home in a good neighborhood is a vaccine for good health. It changes your life course.”
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