Living healthy in Denver

Experts weigh in on what makes a healthy community

Posted 8/8/19

When people think of public health, a few thoughts naturally come to mind: doctors, good nutrition and getting exercise. But defining a healthy community can be a difficult task, said Tristan …

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Living healthy in Denver

Experts weigh in on what makes a healthy community

Posted

When people think of public health, a few thoughts naturally come to mind: doctors, good nutrition and getting exercise.

But defining a healthy community can be a difficult task, said Tristan Sanders, public health program manager with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. Those three components are crucial to public health, but there’s also a lot more to it.

Every five years the city is required by law to conduct a Community Health Assessment, as well as a Community Health Improvement Plan. The last assessment was released in 2015, and the department is gearing up to collect data for a new version to be released early next year.

The report will likely look a little different this year, Sanders said. While it will provide information based on the city as a whole, the department also wants to break down by neighborhood some of the factors that contribute to health.

Many statistics can vary drastically from one neighborhood to the next, Sanders said.

“It just depends on which things you’re looking at,” he said. “We organize a lot of our work around the built environment.”

Primary care physicians also look into people’s home environments when making a diagnosis or care plan for an individual patient, said Dr. Scott Joy, chief medical officer with HealthONE, a network of Colorado hospitals. He estimated that only 20% of a person’s health comes from seeing the doctor and creating a plan. The remaining 80% all comes from his or her living environment.

Not only do doctors consider what people are eating and how much exercise they get, they also want to know if patients have access to public space, grocery stores and transportation — even access to a good school and education can impact health. Mental health screenings and behavioral health are also a major component, Joy said.

“We’re asking patients if they’re socially isolated,” Joy said. “Behavioral health is a big focus for us.”

During the last health assessment, Denver City Council asked the Department of Public Health and Environment to release reports that broke down some of those statistics by council district. The reports looked at four factors — life expectancy, tobacco use, childhood obesity and mental health. The reports were released as part of the Be Healthy Denver program, in partnership with Denver Health.

Citywide, the data from 2014 found that life expectancy in Denver was 78.6 years, 17% of Denverites were smokers, 16% of public school children were considered obese and 13% of residents had been diagnosed with depression. While some districts lined up with Denver’s average, others had higher rates of smoking or lower life expectancies.

This is where studying neighborhood statistics can help provide more insight into the data, Sanders said. In places like District 7, which includes Platt Park, Overland Park, Ruby Hill, some neighborhoods have easy access to public parks, grocery stores and schools. But other areas in that district do not have the same access to stores or schools.

Even how safe you feel in your neighborhood can affect your health, Joy said. If people don’t feel safe enough to walk outside, that can hinder the amount of physical exercise they get.

Access to different programs can also help. The YMCA in Denver offers a pre-diabetes prevention program, which has helped to lower the rate of people who are eventually diagnosed with diabetes.

“The best way studies have shown to prevent that is to work out for 30 minutes, five days a week,” Joy said. “You don’t need to make big changes to prevent chronic diseases like diabetes.”

Doctors have also looked into methods such as prescribing people physical exercise or other ways to promote healthy behavior outside of doctor’s offices. Denver’s access to healthy parks across the city is another factor that helps keep obesity rates low, which in turn helps prevent some obesity-related illness such as heart disease, Joy said.

“Denver parks are a huge opportunity for patients to get out and interact,” Joy said. “We’ve got some really healthy citizens that inspire other people to get out and be healthier.”

The new Healthy Food for Denver Kids tax measure approved by voters in November will also have impacts on such factors as childhood obesity in the city. Sanders said that the Department of Public Health and Environment recently finished choosing city leaders for a commission in charge of distributing those funds. The tax measure added a .08% tax increase, or eight cents for every $100 spent. It is estimated to raise about $10 million annually.

In addition to bringing in healthy food programs, it will also help supplement nutrition education in schools.

“This is just a direct injection of funding for that individualized programming for healthy foods,” Sanders said. “It will be a huge impact and influx for healthy food for kids.”

Some data can already be found on the Department of Public Health and Environment’s website. The department is consistently updating information on food access and tobacco use. Other secondary data can be found in 72 different neighborhood profiles.

Sanders is hopeful the city can take some of this data even further for the 2020 Community Health Assessment and make it more interactive for residents.

“The bottom line is,” Sanders said, “regardless if you’re the healthiest district, you could always be healthier.”

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