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How Hunger Strains Our Health Care System

Less junk food; more fruits and vegetables. This is a common refrain in exam rooms, but for an estimated 42.2 million of our friends and neighbors who lack the basic necessities to live a full, healthy life — following doctor’s orders isn’t about mustering the willpower, it’s about having the resources to access healthy options.

A ripple effect

Every day, individuals are forced to make impossible choices between food, transportation, rent and medicine. The situation is especially stark for an estimated 10 million food insecure older adults who lack access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food — placing them at greater risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. These preventable, chronic diseases diminish the quality of life for these individuals, their families and communities, while dramatically increasing healthcare costs.

In 2014 alone, healthcare costs due to food insecurity were estimated to be at least $160 billion. It is a financial and human burden that cannot be sustained.

The root causes

However, hunger is not the only factor contributing to poor health outcomes, especially in older adults. Transportation, housing, education, isolation and other factors (social determinants) have dramatic and interconnected effects on health. A senior without reliable transportation will struggle to visit the supermarket and keep doctor’s appointments; those living in dilapidated or moldy housing have increased incidence of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases; and a lack of education left many working low-wage, physically-demanding jobs with high injury rates and little in retirement savings.

Holistic solutions

Real health improvements require us to see the whole problem, not just the symptoms. While there is still much work to be done, innovative collaborations between healthcare providers, community organizations, governments, insurers, educational institutions and individual citizens are sprouting up in communities across the country to identify and address the complex and interconnected host of social determinants that are at the root of poor health.

Barbara J. Petee, Executive Director, The Root Cause Coalition, [email protected]

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