PHOENIX, AZ (3TV/CBS5) -- How healthy you are and how long you live could have more to do with your zip code than your genetic code.

Most of us think of our family genes and health history as a blueprint for health and longevity.

Turns out, when you map out the statistics, where you live, work and play can play a far bigger role in in steering the direction of our health, based on access to some of the most basic things.

United Healthcare Arizona CEO Joe Gaudio says your health is where your home is and the simple stresses of daily life can have serious lasting impacts on our overall well-being.

“The culture of poverty is about day-to-day survival," Gaudio said.

"'Do I have enough to eat? Do I have a roof over my head? Do I have reliable transportation? Do I have childcare? Do I have the ability to take off work to take my child to the doctor?’ And the answer many times is, 'No,'" he said.

Jon Ford is a numbers man.

As director for strategic initiatives for Vitalyst Health Foundation, he’s been studying trends to see which neighborhoods have the most needs.

“Phoenix is not an anomaly,” Ford said.

“In fact, in Minnesota, it's like two highway exits for a 16- year life expectancy difference."

And in Arizona, it just so happens to be that it's a 15- minute drive from south Phoenix to north Scottsdale for a 14-year life expectancy difference."

Right now, 5 percent of our population drives roughly 50 percent of the overall healthcare costs. Ford says the geographic disparities boil down to access: everything from affordable housing to employment opportunities, transportation, primary care physicians, and healthy food options.

"The choices you make can only be from the choices you have," Ford said.

Tomasina Begay, 32, and Emmitt Miller, 30, didn't have a choice when baby Ean came into the world a month early and needed emergency heart surgery.

The baby was airlifted from the Navajo reservation in far northeastern Arizona to a medical center in New Mexico then to Phoenix Children's Hospital.

“He had tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia and they said they had to get a stent in there right away,” Begay said.

The couple took turns sleeping in the waiting room and chapel.

And when days turned to weeks, and weeks became months, and then a year in the hospital, Tomasina and Emmitt even lived on the streets, under the freeway at State Route 51 so they could stay close to the NICU.

“Sometimes you don’t think about the little stuff, like feeding yourselves while your baby’s in the hospital and you have other things to think about,” Begay said.

When baby Ean was finally healthy enough to go home and the hospital found out there was no home, he almost got taken away from them.

“They were about ready to place the child with DCS,” Gaudio said.

“And then out of nowhere, we got a call from United Healthcare and they were like, 'Oh, we have an apartment for you guys!" Begay said.

They've now been living in an apartment in west Phoenix rent-free for more than a year.

 "It took a lot off our shoulders," Miller said.

"I used to be on the street; that’s the lifestyle I had, growing up without a dad, drugs, alcohol, those things were like food to me," he said.

Emmitt doesn’t want that for his son.

During one rough stretch while Ean was recovering from surgery in the hospital and his parents were on the streets, struggling to find a home, Emmitt remembers picking up some construction gigs and going four full days without food, surviving only on water.

“It’s all about them now. I had to think about two more lives that I had to support,” Miller said.

Thanks to the break they were given, not only could Ean stay close to the hospital for his cardiac follow-ups, Emmitt got a job, they were able to save for a car, and Tomasina went back to school & got her CNA certification.

"I'm making $14.50 an hour now," Begay said. Once she completes her internship hours, she can make up to $18 an hour.

"I think about what could've happened," Gaudio said.

Ean's family is just one of about 100 here in the valley United and Chicanos por la Causa are helping with subsidized housing, transportation, employment, in-home visits to make sure baby’s hitting his benchmarks, and even marriage counseling!

“They used to call and say ‘Hey do you guys have a ride over to the hospital? Do you guys know he has an appointment tomorrow?'" Begay said.

Gaudio gets emotional telling the story.

“I don't know how you can't get emotional; it's very rewarding. That's why we do what we do, to change lives, to impact lives,” Gaudio said.

And housing is just one component.

United just spent $2 million last year, on getting dental checks, vision screenings, immunizations and refrigerated produce to under-served Arizona neighborhoods.

"We can spend all the money you want on healthcare, but if we haven’t thought about a place to support well-being or health and then direct funding and product and strategies toward that, we’re going to lose/. We're going to lose," Ford said.

Ford says we need to get into the zip code improvement business.

The three local zip codes with the shortest life expectancy are in the heart of downtown Phoenix, west, east and south of Chase Field:

-85004 at 71 years

-85006 at 75 years

-85003 also at 75 years.

The three zips where you'd live 11-to-14 years longer are also clustered together in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley:

-85258 at 85 years

-85253 at 83 years

-85250 at 82 years.

Republican State Senator Heather Carter (LD-15) used to chair the house health committee. She says this is a problem that affects all of us.

"It shouldn't matter where you live or what you do for a living," Carter said.

“If you are worried where you're going to live or find your next meal, you can hardly focus on basic things like keeping up with (doctor) appointments,” she said.

She says Arizona needs more corporate and community groups to step up and fill the gaps.

"Government can't do it all!" Carter said.

Emmitt & Tomasina are now paying half their rent, saving to buy a house.

They never thought they'd be here, healthy, happy, and hopeful.

"I used to pray for everything we have now," Begay said.

They're now on stable ground and ready to map out a future with a different outcome.

There are so many social determinants that impact health and longevity: how close you live to public transportation, quality affordable food, and community safety.

From the Navajo reservation to where Ean’s family is living now, there’s about a six-year differential in longevity.

You can enter your address and zip code to see your life expectancy here.

OTHER WEBLINKS:

VCU & Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study on Metro Phoenix

Breakout of the AZ zip codes in the VCU study

Arizona Partnership for Healthy Communities' Healthy Communities Opportunity Index (HCOI) maps

AARP Livability Index

Nicole Crites anchors 3TV's Good Evening Arizona weekdays alongside Brandon Lee. Nicole also digs deep into issues affecting Arizonans.  You'll see her reports on 3TV News at 9 p.m.
 
 


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