Arizona study finds ZIP codes serves as indicator of community health

PHOENIX – ZIP codes may serve as significant indicators in assessing the health of metro Phoenix residents and just how long they might live.

“Your ZIP code is more important to your health than your genetic code,” according to a report by the Arizona Partnership for Healthy Communities.

That report found that transportation, safety and access to medical care impact the health of people in some ZIP codes more than others.

The report, the Arizona Healthy Communities Opportunity Index, first released in 2016, compared seven factors affecting health: proximity to highways and factories; housing; opportunities to exercise; public transit; access to health care; residential segregation; and education.

The Vitalyst Health Foundation, a Phoenix health foundation, is working with Arizona State University to update the index, said Jon Ford, director of strategic initiatives at the foundation. The Vitalyst Health Foundation works improve the health of individuals and communities in Phoenix, according to its website.

They are adding more indicators, creating an online dashboard and developing usable data for the public.

As the index is being updated, the foundation and other groups are using the index to find ways to improve public health.

“Health is really dependent on your poverty level, on your access to education, on the walkability of your neighborhood,” said Serena Unrein, director of Arizona Partnership for Healthy Communities. “If you live in a lower income ZIP code, unfortunately your chances of living a long healthy life are not as good as if you live in a higher income ZIP code.”

The Arizona Healthy Communities Opportunity Index compared factors affecting health within a community. The North Scottsdale ZIP code, 85258, was found to have the highest life expectancy of 85 years. (Photo by Johanna Huckeba/Cronkite News)

The north Scottsdale ZIP code 85258 was found to have the highest life expectancy, 85 years, largely because of its access to health care, walkability and more.

John Fixter, who lives in 85258, said he rides his bike about 14 or 15 miles a day, all within the trails in his neighborhood.

“The great thing about this place is it has miles and miles of trails you can go any direction,” Fixter said.

Ford, of the Vitalyst Health Foundation, said having high-quality outdoor space is one of the factors essential for health.

“The natural environment provides that space for health, not just in the ways that we think of like. ‘Oh, it’s a place to go work out,'” Ford said. “But literally a space in the urban fabric where people can breathe and relax and enjoy being outdoors.”

In downtown Phoenix’s residents of the 85004 ZIP code have a life expectancy of 71 years.

“I live on the sixth floor and you can just look around and a lot of days, it’s super hazy,” said Jessica Marquardt, a 85004 resident. “I don’t know if that’s from the cars or buses or whatnot, but that is certainly an issue.”

Three years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University released a life expectancy map for Phoenix that found life expectancy gaps as high as 14 years among ZIP codes.

Ford said health care and public health organizations need to work together to solve the problems within different communities.

“We work in transportation, food, housing, parks and rec, environment, education, economic opportunity,” Ford said. “We’re looking at the cross section of all those sectors and trying to see if we can engage people in a clear conversation about what the health impacts are of a lot of different sectors.”

With the index in mind, health organizations came together during a March conference to consider ways to improve the health of Arizonans.

Dr. Douglas Jutte, a San Francisco pediatrician who has worked with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said he always asks patients about their family history, but added, “Honestly, what I should be doing is asking what ZIP code were you born into and raised, and where do you live now. …That would be far, far more predictive.”

Ford said the updated index is expected to be released late this fall.

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