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Study: ‘Pockets’ of disadvantage mark Northern Va.’s health landscape

WASHINGTON — Northern Virginia is among the healthiest regions in the state, but a university study has found big differences in health outcomes across communities, based on socio-economic conditions.

“Within the area, we have a number of neighborhoods where people are struggling to get by, have low income and poor health,” said Dr. Steven Woolf of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health.

Woolf is the principal author of a study conducted for the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, which identified 15 “islands of disadvantage” interlaced among the region’s affluent communities.

“Areas of Leesburg, Sterling, Chantilly, Centreville, areas of Woodbridge, Dumfries, down near Quantico, and a number of areas throughout Arlington and Alexandria,” Woolf said. “As we drive by golf resorts and large McMansions, there are actually pockets of poverty and disadvantage.”

The study found that life expectancy differs as much as 18 years between the areas of prosperity and low-income neighborhoods. Woolf said African-Americans and Hispanics are overrepresented in the disadvantaged areas, contrasting with areas of affluence largely occupied by whites and Asians.

“The important message that I have as a doctor is that health is about much more than health care — our socio-economic conditions and our environment in which we live actually influence our health more than what doctors and hospitals do,” Woolf said.

Expanding access to health care in low-income communities would help, but Woolf said it’s not the full answer.

“What we have to do, actually, is to make investments in improving economic opportunity for our neighborhoods,” Woolf said. “Adding another wing onto a hospital is not going to solve this problem.”

The study says to improve health and well-being, greater investments should be made in education, including preschool, secondary school and boosting graduation rates. Better housing, transportation, safety and improved living conditions are also cited by the study as vital to people’s overall health and well-being.

“The solutions to addressing our health disparities are essentially the same as the solutions to improving social and economic well-being for our community,” Woolf said.


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