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Ensuring everyone has opportunities to achieve good health [Commentary]

President and CEO, the Horizon Foundation

Part of our series of essays from leaders imagining the future of Columbia.

When Columbia took root 50 years ago, its founders worked with Johns Hopkins and established a group of medical doctors to provide health care to our earliest residents. They emphasized the importance of preventing illness and promoting wellness. They understood that the health of the community is directly intertwined with the health of the people.

As Columbia grows in diversity and density, it is increasingly important that we stay true to these roots while recognizing the community's changing needs. These changes call for a renewed commitment to building a Howard County that supports good health.

We are one of the nation's wealthiest and most educated counties – yet despite these factors typically associated with better health, we still face serious health challenges.

We have high rates of people struggling with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Many individuals and families who need mental health services have trouble accessing them. Our rapidly growing aging population often has not started advance care planning. We face high health care costs and people who still cannot get the care they need.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to live a long, healthy life. But we know, from data, that these challenges are far greater for some members of our community.

More than half of all deaths in the county are due to chronic diseases largely linked to nutrition, physical activity and having an unhealthy weight. However these diseases and their associated risk factors often affect residents of different racial and economic backgrounds disproportionately. For example, 34 percent of our black residents report having high blood pressure, compared to 26 percent of white residents and 16 percent of Asian residents. Among students, data show that black and Latino youth are much more likely to have sugary drinks daily — a key risk factor for chronic disease.

Mental health research also shows adolescent Latina youth have higher rates of contemplating suicide than their peers. And while most residents report having health care coverage, those most likely to be uninsured include Latino residents and individuals with incomes below $50,000 a year.

Because of these challenges, the current reality is that everyone in Howard County cannot easily make healthy choices or access critical health services.

As a community built on the belief that people of all races and incomes could thrive when given the opportunity, we must ensure that the opportunity also exists for everyone in our community achieve good health.

Fortunately, we have many organizations and leaders who believe in this vision.

Broad coalitions representing diverse sectors are dedicating efforts to improve health for all who live and work here. Through their work, we are seeing early signs of the impact made possible by a collaborative, forward-thinking approach to community health challenges.

Consider the Let's Rethink Lunch program. Howard County Public School System partnered with the Horizon Foundation and parent-led school wellness committees to debut fresh fruit and vegetable bars and new lunch menus at three elementary schools. The resulting popularity of the produce and healthy entrees has led to significantly more students eating nutritious school lunches.

A recent study published in a peer-reviewed medical journal shows the promise of a comprehensive campaign to tackle sugary drinks involving numerous partners including People Acting Together in Howard, the African American Community Roundtable and Howard County General Hospital. County soda sales are down 20 percent, dramatically outpacing national declines in soda purchases. Since research shows sugary drink consumption is a major contributor to chronic diseases and dental problems, this progress is a heartening sign of better health in our future.

We also have many community groups like Bicycling Advocates of Howard County and Columbia Association working to make it easier for residents and workers to bike and walk where they need to go. A bicycle-friendly and pedestrian-friendly approach to street design helps everyone get physical activity while boosting economic activity and reducing transportation's environmental effects.

These changes are taking shape because people in our community — parents, youth, older adults, pediatricians, faith leaders, policymakers, businesses and so many others — are working together with the common purpose of making Columbia and Howard County a place that supports good health for all.

Columbia has long been a pioneer in building health into the community's core. For the next 50 years, we must continue leading changes that will help everyone in Howard County live a longer, better life.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick is president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation.

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