'You are where you live': New study finds your postal code may affect your health

Published Dec. 17, 2018 2:06 p.m. ET
Updated Dec. 18, 2018 6:00 a.m. ET
People shop in the produce area at a Loblaws store in Toronto on May 3, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Where you live may affect your risk of major diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, according to a new study from McMaster University.

The study, published today in scientific journal Cities and Health links regional trends in health to lifestyle factors, in an attempt to find the “causes of the causes.” In other words, it explores the environmental factors that lead people to develop such conditions as high blood pressure, which can lead to further and more serious health complications.

The study is the culmination of 2,074 on-the-ground community audits undertaken between 2014 and 2016 across ten provinces – with the three territories not included due to geographical limitations of the research team.

What they found is that there are significant differences in environmental factors that may contribute to health, with significant difference between urban and rural communities, as well as between eastern and western, and northern and southern communities.

“We believe that this information shows there are factors outside of a person’s control that influence the individual’s health, and these factors likely differ depending on where they live,” study lead author Russell de Souza said in a release.

Some of the main factors highlighted by the study include:

  • Access to public transportation
  • The variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in stores
  • The prices of popular foods
  • The availability and prices of cigarettes and alcohol
  • Advertising, or lack thereof, of healthy foods in restaurants

“Place matters as our environment affects our health behaviours without our realizing it,” said Sonia Anand, leader of the Canadian Alliance for Healthy Hearts and Minds, which the study is a part of.

Researchers say that, unsurprisingly, the environmental factor trends they found align with health trends discovered in other studies, like that people living in rural environments tend to have poorer health than those in urban environments.

Rural communities face higher food prices – with a basket of food costing 7 per cent more on average than in an urban grocery store – that leads to rural households spending $249 more a year on a typical grocery basket than urban households.

That, paired with a much more limited selection of produce at rural grocery stores may push residents to end up eating less healthy food options.

“It’s one thing for your doctor to tell you that you need to eat more fruits and vegetables to lower your blood pressure,” de Souza said. “But what if your grocery store prices are so high that you cannot afford them?”

But limitations on food availability aren’t the only factor – the study found that nutritional information is 28 per cent less likely to be available in rural restaurants, making it more difficult for people to try and ensure they’re eating healthy.

Factors like a 19 per cent greater likelihood of tobacco and alcohol stores in rural communities may also play a factor in differences in rural health.

“This study demonstrates that rural, including northern and remote communities continue to face inequities with respect to access to healthy food options and even nutrition information in restaurants,” Heart and Stroke’s Anne Simard said.

“This underscores the need for policies to improve nutrition in these communities.”

To aid in that pursuit, the team behind the study also produced an interactive map, allowing the public to enter their postal code and see the breakdown of data for that area.

Researchers hope that the easily accessible information won’t just help individuals, but can help policy makers and health professionals collaborate to build healthier communities, and hopefully avoid conditions from developing in the first place.

As for the healthiest place in Canada to live, de Souza says it depends on your health and habit preferences.

“I would want to live somewhere that makes it easiest to change any behaviour that may be harming my health,” he said.

“If I were a smoker, I would want to live in a place where it was hard for me to get cigarettes. If I were having a difficult time eating healthy, I would want to live somewhere where it was easy for me to walk to a grocery store and buy affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.”


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