by James A. Bacon
WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.–Something is very wrong with America’s health, Dr. Richard Jackson, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles, told the Congress for the New Urbanism today. Rates of depression, obesity and diabetes are soaring. “We’re looking at the first generation in American history that will have a shorter life span than their parents.”
There is no single villain behind the deterioration in public health. But from a big-picture perspective, the problem is easy to explain. Americans are eating more than they did 30 years ago, and they’re getting less exercise. And a major reason they’re getting less exercise can be traced to changes in the built environment. “The environment is rigged against the child and rigged against the doctor,” he said. “We have medicalized what is an environmental health challenge.”
Jackson was preaching to the converted. New Urbanists have long fought the auto-centric design of the American suburbs and preached the virtues of compact, walkable, mixed use communities. Originally, walkable communities were seen mainly as an antidote to traffic congestion, the high cost of automobile ownership and the erosion of community. But in recent years, New Urbanists have been touting the health advantages of urban design that make it practicable for people to walk and ride bicycles.
Jackson blasted the contribution of automobiles to mortality and illness at many levels. Automobile crashes are the number one cause of death for Americans between the ages of three and 33, he said. Air pollution from cars and trucks causes an ever larger number of deaths. Children living in communities with high levels of pollution have 3.3 times the risk of asthma than children living in communities with low levels. But the greatest health threat of all is the lack of physical exercise. Children enjoy little mobility in suburban communities. They cannot walk to school, visit their friends or engage in scheduled activities unless driven by an adult.
Children are out of shape, and obesity rates are surging, Jackson said. Only 37% of California kids can meet a fitness standard of running/walking a mile in 12 minutes. Two out of seven volunteers get rejected by the military because they don’t meet minimal fitness standards. By 2030, obesity rates for adults are projected to reach 42%.
Physicians have found they can’t treat obesity with medication, and counseling doesn’t seem to work. The environmental factors reinforcing over-eating and under-exercising are too strong. It may be possible to reduce caloric intake by such measures as taxing soft drinks, Jackson said, but Americans need to re-build their communities to get them out of cars and onto sidewalks and bicycles. The nation needs to “make physical activity a routine and integral part of life.”
Bacon’s bottom line: I don’t agree with all of Jackson’s prescriptions (like raising taxes on sugar), but there’s no denying that he’s diagnosed the problem. For what it’s worth, obesity seems to be a particular problem in Virginia. Hampton Roads is the 4th fattest region in the country, according to a recent Newsweek tally, and Richmond is the 2nd fattest! Holy moly! No wonder the Bon Secours Virginia Health System sponsored Jackson’s presentation.
As Jackson said, this is a “code blue” emergency. Obesity and the health complications arising from it, particularly hypertension and diabetes, will cost the health care system hundreds of billions of dollars that will cost even the healthy among us. Time to get cracking!