Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Prosper and live longer: stats

Rich residents tend to outlive those in city's poorer areas

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A woman in a poor neighbourhood such as Point Douglas will die, on average, 16 years earlier than a woman in a middle-class neighbourhood like Richmond West.

Things are a little better for poor men. Their lives are only 13 years shorter than wealthier men.

That's one of hundreds of grim statistics assembled in recent years by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, which, taken together, paint a bleak picture of the huge health gap between rich and poor in Manitoba.

Life expectancy is a bellwether, one of the best and bluntest measures of overall health. MCHP director Patricia Martens frequently uses the figures to illustrate just how stark Winnipeg's health gap is.

She likens it to a bus ride up Pembina Highway. For every couple of stops closer to Winnipeg's downtown, a rider loses a year of life. If the rider continues north up Main Street, he gains those years back.

To put the figures in perspective, Martens says curing cancer would only add three years to the average life expectancy in North America. So, a 13- to 16-year difference between Winnipeggers in rich and poor neighbourhoods points to an extreme health disparity.

What makes Winnipeggers in neighbourhoods such as William Whyte, Point Douglas and Burrows die so young?

"It's not very satisfying, but the answer is everything," said MCHP researcher Randy Fransoo. "Whatever is going around that's bad, the poor are going to have more of it."

That means higher rates of chronic diseases, more trips to the hospital and even lower screening for breast cancer.

  • In core neighbourhoods such as William Whyte and Lord Selkirk Park, more than a third of people have a mental illness. In Fort Garry, the number doesn't crack 20 per cent.
  • Diabetes, among Manitoba's most serious health threats, is nearly twice as common in poor urban neighbourhoods than in the wealthiest ones.
  • The rate of teen pregnancies in the inner city is seven times higher than in the southern suburbs.
  • Nearly half of all children who have cavities so severe they need surgery come from the poorest 20 per cent of children. Fransoo says that stat makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

But the news isn't all bad. In some areas, such as breastfeeding, the gap is closing, and the health of inner-city neighbourhoods has improved in recent years, just not as fast as in richer neighbourhoods.

And, researchers have found creative programs, such as the province's Healthy Baby program, can nudge health outcomes in the right direction.

The Healthy Baby program, which gives poor, pregnant women an extra $80 a month and some targeted support before and after their baby is born, can dramatically shrink premature births and low birth weights and boost breastfeeding.

It was the extra cash, less than $3 a day, that sparked the biggest improvement.

"We thought, 'It's a great idea, hopefully it will help, but it's probably not gonna change the world,' " said Fransoo. "But, it did. It was just astounding."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 A3

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