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Health disparities reflect racial and economic divide

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 12/6/2011, 5:58 p.m.

Health disparities continue to fall along racial lines, the Boston Public Health Commission’s latest “Health of Boston” report reveals.

“Boston’s black and Latino residents experience higher levels of chronic disease, mortality, and poorer health outcomes compared with White residents,” the report says. “These health inequities are driven by the interaction of several factors, including racism, poverty, and residential segregation. For Boston’s black residents, these health inequities begin early in life and persist throughout an individual’s lifespan.”

For instance, blacks have the highest rates of low birth weight, pre-term births, asthma hospitalizations, diabetes, high blood pressure, adult obesity and homicide. Blacks also have higher rates of mortality for diabetes, heart disease and cancer — which means that even when blacks and whites suffer from the same disease, blacks are more likely to die.

Related to this, blacks also have a lower life expectancy than any other racial group in the city. The average life span for blacks is 73.7 years, compared to 79 years for whites, 80.7 years for Latinos and 83.9 years for Asians. Blacks are the only group in Boston to fall below the national life expectancy of 77.7 years —whites, Latinos and Asians in the city all fare better than the national average.

This inequality is particularly striking when viewed alongside the growth of communities of color in the city. So-called minorities are now the majority in Boston, comprising 53 percent of the population compared to whites. In addition, one-quarter of residents are now foreign-born, and more than half were born outside the Commonwealth.

Given these demographic changes, a failure to resolve racial health disparities will inevitably lead to declining health of the city overall.

But all racial groups share one thing in common — none are eating enough fruits and vegetables.

A dismal 18 percent of Boston Public School students report eating four to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but all races report similar rates. Adults fare only slightly better, with 26 percent of all residents eating the suggested portions.

A serving size, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can be a half-cup of chopped raw or cooked vegetables, a medium-sized piece of fruit, a quarter-cup of dried fruit or a half-cup of vegetable or fruit juice.

“Boston is one of the healthiest cities in America, but, obviously, there is still work to do,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “That’s why it’s important that we continue to sound the alarm about the bad health consequences of sugary beverages and tobacco, while continuing to provide support for community gardening, Farmers’ Markets and create policies and programs that allow residents to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine.”

 While few Bostonians are eating enough produce, the majority of residents are drinking soda every day. Twenty-eight percent of Boston Public School students report drinking one or more cans of soda each day, and 54 percent drink less than one can per day. This means that only 18 percent of public school students drink no soda at all — the same number that’s eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Black students are among the biggest soda drinkers, with 30 percent drinking one or more can per day, and 55 percent drink less than one can per day — so a whopping 85 percent of black students drink soda everyday. Boston’s adults report much healthier soda habits, with 44 percent drinking none at all, 42 percent drinking less than one can per day, and just 13 percent drinking one or more can every day.

 Following the same pattern, just 27 percent of public school students get regular exercise — which means one hour per day, five days a week — while 57 percent of adults get regular exercise.

“The Health of Boston report is always a sobering reminder that our work is far from finished, though every year we continue to see areas of progress,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement. “This report will help us set our public health priorities so that we align resources where they are most needed.”

To read the entire Health of Boston 2011 report, visit http://www.bphc.org/about/research/Pages/Home.aspx.