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Health Improvement Collaborative focuses on racism as a public health risk

New London — A community health professor at Tufts University came to the Opportunities Industrialization Center Monday to talk with more than 30 people about how racism functions as a public health risk.

The Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut hosted the event with Adolfo Cuevas, who is director of the Psychosocial Determinants of Health Lab at Tufts.

Cuevas pointed out that when it comes to the most prevalent causes of death in the country, black and Hispanic people have higher mortality rates than white people, with obesity playing a role in many of them. 

While people often associate obesity with poor access to healthy foods in poor communities, Cuevas noted that research shows black and Hispanic populations have higher rates of obesity across all income levels.

He cited one study showing that black people in segregated communities have a 30% higher risk of diabetes than those in non-segregated ones. Segregation remains an issue due to the lingering effects of redlining, the practice of banks denying mortgages in certain communities.

"Policies were put in place to stunt the economic and social growth of certain groups," Cuevas said.

In addition, he noted that discrimination, financial stress and relationship problems — for which there are higher rates among black and Hispanic people — are all associated with a greater body mass index, or BMI. The cumulative exposure to various stressors also explains some of the BMI disparity.

But a study sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which also supported the event Monday, showed that only 40% of 240 mayors across the country interviewed for the study believed that stress was contributing to health disparities.

Mayor Michael Passero attended the event, as did state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London. Nolan asked about how he could introduce legislation addressing equity, how researchers at the Capitol could look at these issues and what other communities are doing well to address the problem.

Cuevas responded by citing the Shape Up Somerville initiative, a self-sustaining program in Massachusetts that incorporates a lifestyle and behavioral element in its effort to address childhood trauma.

He also spoke of the impact of intergenerational trauma, citing research findings that mothers who experienced childhood trauma were more likely to have children who are obese, even after adjusting for factors such as the mother's BMI and education level.

Representatives from Connecticut College, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut, Fresh New London, and New London Mutual Aid Collective also attended the talk.

In response to one question about how physicians treat people of color, Cuevas said a 2005 study showed physicians were colder, used shorter words and stood farther away, though he noted there have been improvements since that report. He added that racial minorities receive a poorer quality of care regardless of the race of the physician.

Jennifer Muggeo of Ledge Light Health District said that the Health Improvement Collaborative identified focus areas in 2016 that included risk for chronic disease and diabetes, especially among black people; anxiety among Latinos; and improving access to care for low-income communities.

She noted that the same racial inequities seen in health outcomes exist in social determinants, such as housing, education and transportation.


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