No one disputes that better health can lead to a longer life. But the benefits go far beyond that — better health can also lead to a more prosperous life. In fact, in communities where residents enjoy better health, unemployment rates are lower and incomes are higher.footnote1
Unfortunately, too many communities across the United States do not have sufficient access to what is needed to live healthier lives. In communities of color, generations of lack of access to care and health resources have contributed to poorer health outcomes. So, while there has been an overall decline in mortality rates for preventable diseases across the country, the mortality rates for diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and certain types of cancer remain notably higher in Black communities, while Hispanic-Latino and Native American populations experience a high number of diabetes-related deaths.footnote2 And while the causes of these disparities are complex, one thing is clear: “It’s a misperception that people are entirely responsible for their own health,” says Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, chief medical officer for prevention for the American Heart Association.“When we tell people, ‘you gotta eat healthier and be physically active,’ we’re not understanding the context of their lives.”
Access to healthier foods, including fresh produce, is a hardship in many underserved urban and rural communities. These areas, known as food deserts, are more likely to be found in neighborhoods that are plagued by underinvestment, underdevelopment and lower rates of employment.footnote3 Such conditions have a huge impact on the long-term quality of life for the residents. “As a society, we sometimes blame individuals for their health problems while not giving them the tools they need to manage for the environment that they’re in,” says Sanchez.
Lower incomes also come into play when considering health. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the median income for Black households in 2020 is $45,870, and for Hispanic-Latinos it is $55,321, compared to $74,912 for white households.footnote4 Earning less can limit access to quality health insurance and associated care, which is increasingly linked to not just healthier lives but also to longer ones.footnote5 Because of the interlinked nature of health and wealth, addressing the issues associated with preventable diseases can have a multiplier effect — not only will it improve individuals’ physical lives, it may also provide greater economic mobility.