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Mitchell: Where you live shouldn’t matter so much to your health

Dr. Julie Morita

Dr. Julie Morita: "There are huge disparities. And that is not acceptable." | Sun-Times file photo

By the time you reach your late 60s, you’ve accepted that something is coming. You just don’t know what.

Still, it’s distressing to hear, “When it comes to health, your ZIP code matters more than your genetic code.”

That dire pronouncement by Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president of Healthy Communities, was repeated by Dr. Julie Morita, Chicago’s city health commissioner, at this past week’s launch of the Healthy Chicago 2.0 initiative.

It’s a collaboration of business, nonprofits, government, philanthropic agencies, advocacy and faith-based groups to improve health equity in the city.

While life expectancy in Chicago is at an all-time high — 77.8 years — for Chicagoans living in areas of high economic hardship it’s five years lower, according to Morita.


The hardship index indicators included crowded housing, poverty, unemployment and the percentage of people over 25 years old without a high school education, the percentage of the population that’s under 18 and over 64 and per-capita income.

“We mapped it out by community area, and we found there are huge disparities,” Morita said. “And that is not acceptable.

“In the Loop, life expectancy is 85 years,” she said. “When you compare that to communities like Washington Park, just a few Red Line stops away from the Loop, it is 69 years — 16 years different.”

If you live in a safe area of the city that is chock full of resources, you have a better chance of adopting healthy habits.

But as Morita pointed out, in high-poverty communities, tobacco-smoking rates are 45 percent higher than in lower-poverty communities.

“For us to make a difference in long-lasting, long-term health and also to address disparities, we really have to look at the social factors that impact health,” the commissioner said, “things like housing, community development and educational opportunities.”

For many African-American seniors, diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes are accepted as an unavoidable part of aging.

In the past, the biggest barrier to closing the health disparity, especially for seniors, was a lack of access.

These days, though, providers are taking health care directly to communities.

Last week, I popped in to Oak Street Health at 1715 E. 95th St. in Avalon Park in response to a cold call.

Don’t scoff. People who work in call centers need their jobs.

Oak Street provides primary care exclusively for Medicare patients. Besides being a doctor’s office, the facility is a community center that offers computer classes, arts and crafts, line-dancing and classes on urban farming.

I just missed the line-dancing.

Jared Richardson.

Jared Richardson

“Access to care — that is the big thing,” said Jared Richardson, a senior director of outreach for Oak Street Health. “We provide the community center for people to have a social outlet. From the doctor’s standpoint, it helps to serve the whole being of older adults.”

Indeed, the Oak Street model appears to fit with the mission of Healthy Chicago 2.0.

The four-year plan provides a blueprint to address an injustice that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once described as the “most shocking and the most inhuman.”

This effort on the part of the Chicago Department of Public Health to identify and address barriers to good health is a compassionate step forward.