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Response to a Newly Published U.S. Health Map on Obesity

It has been reported by media countless times. Everyone has been talking about it, most people know of its existence, and many have come up with a plethora of remedies—sometimes misleading and unfounded—for it. And yet, not only is it still plaguing the United States, it has transformed into an epidemic.

That’s right, “it” is obesity.

A longitudinal study done by the University of Washington measured several parameters, including physical activity, obesity, hypertension and longevity in every county in the United States. Through the use of interactive maps, the study illustrates the trends and changes in the parameters mentioned above from 1985 to 2011. At the very least, the result is overwhelming.

On the interactive map, you are presented with a map of every county in the United States, color-coded to the degree of a chosen health parameter. For example, we will look specifically at obesity. Above the map, you are able to choose among the different categories and specify the county of interest. Below the map, the scroll bar is provided to show the change in colors, and therefore the change in the degree of obesity, from 2001 to 2011.

Many conclusions can be drawn after a careful examination:

1. Geography is closely related to overall health.

2. More people in America are becoming somewhat physically active.

3. More people in America are becoming obese and hypertensive.

4. Women tend to be more obese than men.

Those who are the most physically active, and consequently the least likely to be burdened with many health issues, are found on the West Coast and East Coast—in other words, the more affluent areas. A KQED News report from July cites the healthy living and longevity in the Bay Area, claiming that the longest-living women are located in Marin County, Calif. and the skinniest men are found in San Francisco.

Though I am not familiar with the lifestyle of women in Marin County, as I only lived there for three years, I am not surprised that areas like San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo are high on the list of physical activity and longevity. As indicated in an article accompanying the map, people from affluent regions tend to be more educated, more aware of healthy habits, and more financially stable. They also have more resources, including adequate health care insurance and public recreational areas.

On the contrary, people who are most affected by chronic diseases such as obesity and hypertension tend to live at or near the poverty line, are less educated, and are not as likely to have adequate health care insurance or community resources. The books “County: Life, Death, and Politics in Chicago’s Public Hospital” by Dr. David Ansell and “Mama Might Be Better Off Dead” by Laurie Abraham document the histories of Cook County Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital and highlight the important factors that contribute to the health care inequality in Chicago. One universal theme suggested is the association of health care resources, socioeconomic status and geography.

Universal health care, as suggested by many physicians, including Dr. Ansell in his book, is the only way to fix this problem in the long run. A community should be given support financially to establish more accessible resources, such as community clinics, primary care physicians, health education, home visits and health outreach. This, however, is easier said than done. Through reading books and news articles, and watching various documentaries, I realize that health care entails so much politics that it can be frustrating and sometimes downright impossible. In addition to politics, health care is associated with issues of race, socioeconomic status, human nature and tendencies, culture, and just about every other aspect of being human and living in a society.

It is clear there are many obstacles posed by bureaucracies and the sluggish economy. I am, however, optimistic that with more progressive health care reforms, fewer Americans will be debilitated by chronic diseases and the health care system in America will improve.

Qing Meng Zhang Qing Meng Zhang (9 Posts)

Reporter and in-Training Staff Member

Rush Medical College

Meng Zhang is a medical student at Rush Medical College, Class of 2017, in Chicago. Meng obtained her bachelor degree in Biological Science in 2010 from University of California - San Diego. Her professional interests are writing, underserved communities, and holistic medicine.

When she's not being a 5/8th of a doctor and writing patient notes "for educational purpose only", she likes to sleep until sunrise, eat a healthy meal, and enjoy every bit of sunshine Chicago offers. Reading, watching TV shows/movies, froyo-ing, and shopping are always welcomed when possible.