June 7, 2017

A Healthier Brooklyn Means Better Preventive Care – and Better Lifestyle Choices

By Eric L. Adams

There are many issues facing the residents of Brooklyn – with some 2.6 million people, New York City’s most populous borough. While affordable housing and employment remain my top priorities as borough president, there is another challenge that does not get as much attention or debate that also needs greater scrutiny: public health.

For me, this has become personal. Last year, I went to the doctor to check up on some stomach pains. After testing, it was revealed that I had Type 2 diabetes. I was subsequently informed by my doctor that I needed to revamp my diet and physical activity regimen. Essentially, my health was in my own hands but only if I was willing to change some habits.

With that frightening diagnosis, I completely changed my diet, started a vigorous exercise routine, and began a journey toward better health. One year later, my diabetes has been controlled and I’ve lost 30 pounds in the process.

There are hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites like me struggling with preventable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, and obesity. This is a public health crisis in Brooklyn and across New York City. According to the American Diabetes Association, 12.3% of the city’s population now has diabetes. In addition, another 36.2% has prediabetes.

In particular, this epidemic has created wide racial and socioeconomic disparities in health indicators caused by decades of inequities in access to quality health care. African American and Latino communities across Brooklyn are twice as likely to suffer from these debilitating and deadly diseases. Central and Eastern Brooklyn, heavily African American and Latino communities, have the highest prevalence of poverty in the borough and are hardest hit by these alarming health indicators.

In East New York, 18% of adults have diabetes, three times the rate in Bay Ridge and the highest rate for any community citywide. In that same neighborhood, the rate of HIV diagnosis is 41 adults per 100,000 people compared to an average of 27.9 adults Brooklyn-wide. Residents of nearby Brownsville have a life expectancy of 74 years, nearly 10 years less than life expectancy for residents of Borough Park. The number of children hospitalized for asthma in Crown Heights is 76 for every 10,000 kids, more than 12 times the rate in Sheepshead Bay. This is a crisis that we must address.

Public policies can be shifted to address disparities in access to good, quality health care. We need to do more to ensure that resources for preventative health and education are fully funded, including fully funding the 17 community health centers currently in Brooklyn.

In addition, community awareness can help shift attitudes and lifestyle choices that can lead to better health. Individuals and communities must break through age-old habits because people are dying every day from these diseases – and that can be prevented. We can’t repeat the missteps of the past. So looking forward, we should not simply throw more money at the problem.  Instead we need to be innovative and commit to making community investments in public health that address specific needs at the local level.

Several measures we can take to proactively address these disparities include opening community care centers in neighborhoods that lack adequate health services and engaging with businesses around encouraging healthy eating at work, such as the Brooklyn Healthy Workplace Challenge, which we launched this year in partnership with the American Heart Association.

It is important to educate Brooklynites around making healthier food choices, including curbing salt, understanding food labels, and highlighting high-calorie counts in food items. I believe we must act as well as to provide greater support for those looking to live healthier lifestyles if we want to combat this growing health crisis head on. That kind of preventative and targeted approach can save the health care system much-needed resources and ensure that the residents of Brooklyn live long, healthy and fulfilling lives free from the burdens of disease.

Eric L. Adams is Brooklyn Borough President.

Photo credit: Payton Chung