Worries that the economic recession has affected the overall health of Island residents are highlighted in a report from the Vancouver Island Health Authority’s chief medical health officer.
“If you’re unemployed for a period of as little as six months, it actually shortens your life expectancy,” said Dr. Richard Stanwick. “That’s why the concerns around the recession. Every recession will probably be associated … down the road with poorer [health] outcomes.”
In his annual report on the health status of Island residents, Stanwick notes that after falling for eight years, unemployment rates increased dramatically in 2009. And while rates improved a bit in the first six months of 2010, they remained worse than 2008 levels.
The percentage of the Nanaimo population on income assistance also increased from about two per cent in 2008 to more than three per cent by March 2010.
Central and north Island residents have higher levels of premature mortality and a lower life expectancy than south Island residents, which Stanwick believes might have to do with the changing economic foundation in resource-based communities.
The mental stress of unemployment can take toll on physical health and if the person is poor, they are less likely to eat properly and more likely to live in poorer quality housing, he said.
Jeorge McGladrey, executive director of Nanaimo Citizen Advocacy, said the organization saw an increase in the number of people seeking assistance to pay medical bills – from 798 medical interventions in the 2008/09 fiscal year to 1,406 last fiscal year.
Many of those were dental-related problems, she said, as well as foot problems and a myriad of health issues related to poor nutrition.
Social assistance rates have not been increased in years, even though the cost of housing has gone up, so people are faced with a choice, said McGladrey.
“They’re either going to have a roof over their heads or they’re going to eat,” she said.
What people are eating is another concern for Stanwick – the percentage of Island residents who are overweight or obese has increased slightly over the past decade.
Growing waistlines are contributing to development of chronic diseases such as diabetes at a younger age than in the past and extra weight also wears out joints faster, he said.
Stanwick’s report warns that if obesity numbers are not turned around, the Island will face “the conjoined twin epidemics of chronic illnesses occurring in both the baby boomers and their offspring.”
His call for supporting food security programs excites Crystal Dennison, executive director of Nanaimo Foodshare.
The organization, which runs healthy cooking classes for children and adults, hopes to secure funding from the health authority, she said. The group wants to do more in schools.
“There needs to be a continual effort in schools to encourage physical activity and healthy eating,” said Dennison. “There’s always more to do.”
Stanwick also noted that the Island’s population aged 65 and up has steadily increased – 18 per cent of Nanaimo’s population is in this age category, compared with 29.9 per cent in Qualicum and 17.3 per cent in Victoria.
Focus on young mothers
Health officials are focusing on young, first-time mothers, especially in the central Island region.
The central Island has higher rates of teen pregnancies, preterm births and low birth weights than elsewhere on the Island and the Vancouver Island Health Authority will start a new initiative in the coming months to provide more support to women in higher risk categories.
Dr. Richard Stanwick, the health authority’s chief medical health officer, said most chronic diseases originate in early childhood and some studies suggest that health problems could start before a baby is born.
Jan Tatlock, the health authority’s director for community services, said public health nurses will assess pregnant women and provide services based on need, as opposed to providing the same services to all women.
She said between 40 and 50 per cent of women need minimal services, such as breastfeeding support, but for the more vulnerable population, such as women struggling with poverty issues, teen mothers or new immigrants, nurses will follow the baby’s progress from soon after conception to the first two years of life and provide supports tailored to each individual.
The health authority will start a randomized clinical trial of the new initiative next July, said Tatlock.
Those not selected for the study will receive the services currently offered.