Posted: April 1, 2013
The great-granddaughter of Polish immigrants, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) grew up in the Highlandtown neighborhood of blue-collar East Baltimore. Today, Mikulski is 76 and a formidable force on Capitol Hill. She is the longest-serving woman in the history of the United States Congress.
Yet, as Mikulski noted during a recent visit to the NIH, a baby born today in her hometown may not be so lucky. On average, that child could be expected to live only 74 years. A baby born 15 minutes west, in impoverished Harlem Park, would be even less fortunate, expected to survive to only 65. Yet, drive 20 minutes northwest, to affluent Roland Park, and a child born there could live to 83.
For the most part, these dramatic longevity differences track with wealth among the three localities. But that does not mean that money alone would be a solution. Heart disease is the number-one killer of both women and men in all three of these neighborhoods, taking the lives of up to half of all community members in the worst scenarios.
Ethnicity and race also play a significant role in the nation's health. People of color are often the most affected by health disparities, based on a constellation of factors we don't yet clearly understand. For instance, black adults are less likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease, but more likely to die from it. And there's age: alarming new data shows an uptick in advanced breast cancer among young women of all backgrounds aged 25-39.
As our country's medical research agency, the NIH has a singular goal: to support the best research toward improving the health of all Americans. By gathering data about health determinants, NIH-funded researchers build a knowledge base for everyone to use, toward dissolving disparities through interventions built upon solid research about what works.
This research has taught us that most chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers are preventable through healthy living that includes a good diet, regular physical activity, and avoiding harm from tobacco and alcohol.
While the NIH cannot control where people live or how communities are structured, NIH-funded research is untangling the complexities of biological, behavioral, and societal influences that shape health. To communicate these efforts, ORWH and many NIH Institutes create science-based informational materials for women of color as well as materials to help health care professionals approach patients in a culturally sensitive way. We also recognize the urgent need to recruit and retain scientists and physicians of color, and a wide-reaching strategy is underway NIH-wide.
The goal of the NIH and its many partners in American health is clear — we must work together to erase the discrepancy in years of life and well-being that distinguish neighborhoods just a few miles apart.