Chronic medical conditions like diabetes, COPD, heart disease, and obesity, are a major health issue in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention about half of the adults in the U.S. have at least one chronic condition and a quarter have two or more. Obesity in particular is a growing concern in the U.S. The CDC reports that more than 1/3 of adults are obese and 17% of children are obese. While chronic diseases can affect anyone, people living in poverty are disproportionally affected.
Many chronic diseases have a genetic component, but social and environmental factors also affect our health. Social factors include things like access to healthy food, good paying jobs, transportation options, and exposure to crime and violence. Environmental factors can include the built environment such as availability of sidewalks, public parks and green spaces, or the natural environment such as access to clean water and air. While these social and environmental factors may directly lead to poor health (such as air pollution worsening asthma symptoms), they also indirectly affect health when they become barriers to healthy behaviors. For example, we know that healthy diet and exercise can prevent chronic diseases like obesity. But if you live in a neighbored where it is unsafe to go outside, it may be hard to exercise; similarly if the nearest grocery store is 10 miles away and you don’t have a car, it may be easier to shop at the corner store even though they don’t sell fruits and vegetables. Thus, to combat chronic diseases in the U.S. it is important to address these social and environmental factors: healthy communities support healthy behaviors.