While access to medical care and individual behaviors play a role in shaping our health, where we live also plays a significant role. Our health can be directly affected by neighborhood conditions such as exposure to air toxins, and indirectly affected by conditions that either support or deter behaviors that have health consequences. The role of social, economic, and environmental conditions in shaping health outcomes is referred to as the “social determinants of health.” Maps can play a powerful role in helping us understand and address these issues.
Data on disease rates highlight the significant health disparities affecting low-income populations and communities of color, but the causes of these disparities are difficult to trace. For example, data show that mortality rates due to diabetes are higher among people of color than among whites. A wide range of environmental and social factors can impact diabetes rates, but it is impossible to understand the role of these factors when looking at summary data for a county or region.
Maps can help us understand how factors in the built environment and in people’s living and working conditions affect their health. They show how access to fresh food, active transit options, parks, health care, and economic opportunity varies geographically. Comparing this information with maps showing the geographic distribution of disease rates at a local level can provide important insights into the root causes of health disparities and the policy interventions that will help achieve health equity.