Neighborhood Matters: Your ZIP Code And Your Health

Saturday, March 11, 2017

There’s A Link Between Where We Live And Our Health

In fact, many studies have found ZIP code is a better predictor of physical and mental health, quality of life and life expectancy than even DNA. 

The reason?  Access – to clean air and water, transportation, education, safe housing and jobs. Living in a walkable neighborhood with sidewalks and public parks also makes a big difference. So does race, public health research shows.

RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America

These so-called “social determinants of health” mean Americans who live just a few miles apart may face dramatically different health outcomes during their lifetimes. 

"Life expectancy can differ by as much as 20 years in neighborhoods only about five miles apart from one another,” according to the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health. 

Social factors, including poverty, education and racial segregation account for more than a third of total deaths in the United States in a year, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports.

Health Disparities In Urban East Tennessee

Neighbors Unite To Fight The ZIP Code Curse


On this episode of TruckBeat, the team heads to neighborhoods north and east of downtown Knoxville to learn more about how ZIP code impacts health and well-being every day. 

We learn about an effort by East Knoxville organization Five Points Up to better understand and combat the forces driving the neighborhood’s health disparities. East Knoxville is a food desert – an area where fresh produce, grocery stores and farmers’ markets are hard to come by.

"If you have to decide between the bag of grapes that's almost $5 or three cans of processed food that's a dollar, I think more often than not they're going to reach for what's economical."

And we meet a group of friends in the Parkridge neighborhood – women determined to lose weight, improve their physical health and beat the ZIP code odds.  

Just A Few Blocks Can Mean Big Health Gaps

According to the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health, there are complex reasons why some neighborhoods – even within the same city or county– are healthier than others.  

"Residential segregation ... can limit social cohesion, stifle economic growth, and perpetuate cycles of poverty."

Limited access to doctors may discourage people from seeking regular medical care. Unreliable transportation can isolate people from well-paying jobs, health care, child care and other services, the research shows.

The Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health also finds: 

"Unsafe or unhealthy housing exposes residents to allergens and other hazards like overcrowding. Stores and restaurants selling unhealthy food may outnumber markets with fresh produce or restaurants with nutritious food.
Opportunities for residents to exercise, walk, or cycle may be limited, and some neighborhoods are unsafe for children to play outside.
Proximity to highways, factories, or other sources of toxic agents may expose residents to pollutants."

A Kid-Centered Approach To Health


In this story, we meet a group of young people in East Knoxville, one of Knoxville's most economically disadvantaged – and least healthy – neighborhoods. 

"We're kids, but we want our community to be safer for us and for our siblings."

These East Knoxville elementary school students are helping the city create a plan for improving public health, walkability and safety in the community.

How Healthy Is Your Neighborhood?

Search your ZIP code using the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's mapping tool. Learn more about how ZIP code impacts health in your own city at the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health.

Jess Mador

Jess Mador is the creator of TruckBeat for WUOT. She's an award-winning public radio and multimedia journalist who has produced stories for news organizations around the country, including Minnesota Public Radio, NPR News and PBS member stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Leslie Snow

Leslie Snow is a freelance producer for WUOT. She has a master’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Arlington. Leslie has been working on special projects for WUOT since 2010. She also writes a weekly column for the Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper. She has large dogs, small cats and medium-sized kids.

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