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Commentary: Northern Virginia’s Health

The 2.2 million people in the Northern Virginia communities of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park cities live in the most populous region in the commonwealth and in some of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation. Generally, the region is quite healthy. According to the “County Health Rankings” published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, seven of the nine jurisdictions in Northern Virginia ranked in the top 10 of 133 Virginia cities and counties on various health measures.

As I learned recently, however, by attending the Northern Virginia Health Foundation’s Northern Virginia Health Summit, it is important to look in detail at some of the health outcomes to most accurately understand the health of our region. The foundation’s report, “How Healthy Is Northern Virginia: A Look at the Latest Community Health Indicators” provides those details (www.novahealthfdn.org). The most obvious challenge to the region’s good health is obesity. More than a million adults and a quarter of all youth can be classified as overweight or obese. At the same time, there is the remarkable statistic that 35 percent of all kindergarten to 12th grade students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunch. Statistics from other reports show that these students are less likely to perform as well as students from more affluent homes. More than 400,000 adults are reported as not having been to a dental visit in the last two years. Also in the region, more than 5,000 pregnant women give birth without receiving early prenatal care.

Multiple factors affect the health of any region. Although the Northern Virginia region is wealthy, there continues to be many low and marginal income people in the area. Reston-Herndon, Central Fairfax, Bailey’s Crossroads and the Route 1 Corridor have a higher concentration of persons at or below the federal poverty level. For more specific information on the demographics and health of the counties in Virginia, go to www.countyhealthcalculator.org. The population of Northern Virginia is very diverse; about 42 percent of the population is Hispanic, Asian and African American among other racial and ethnic groups.

Many of the conditions that contribute to poor health are preventable. Access to healthy foods and physical activity are critical as are healthy housing, clean air and water, and safe neighborhoods and workplaces. The biggest personal health-related behavior causes of death include tobacco use, poor diet and exercise, abuse of alcohol and drugs, firearms and motor vehicles.

Now that the Northern Virginia Health Foundation has provided us with a diagnosis of the region’s health, it is up to policy makers and community leaders to do something about it. I will continue to work to ensure that the Medicaid program is expanded in Virginia because it is the single most important thing that can be done to bring the uninsured into medical coverage. Citizen lobbying to accomplish this change by speaking up and voting is very important. From the participants at the summit, it was obvious to me that the community organizations and government agencies are willing to collaborate to ensure the best health of the Northern Virginia region.