The view of health in the Lehigh Valley is one of great contrast. Residents live longer than most people in the state, yet their quality of health tends to be among the worst. Two factors contribute primarily to a person’s health: health-related behaviors and the physical environment people live in. Again, those reveal contrasts. With 1,000 miles of streams and more than 460 miles of nature trails, most people in the Lehigh Valley have close access to outdoor activity. And 76% say they are physically active – a rate higher than the national average of 69%.
Yet, 17% of residents in the region smoke and 18% percent drink excessively, and in defiance of national and statewide trends, neither of those numbers have improved since 2010.
Risky health behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes and excessive consumption of alcohol, can lead to a wide range of health issues and early death.
But the physical environment plays a key role as well. Of those surveyed, 63% identified clean air and clean water as the regional top environmental priority. Air pollution triggers asthma episodes, sends people to hospitals, shapes how children’s lungs develop and can even be deadly. The region’s location between two mountain ranges reduces air quality in the Valley. Common air pollutants include ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide - all from burning various fuels for non-transportation and transportation-related uses.
In the Pennsylvania County Health Rankings, quality of health is based on health behaviors, environmental factors (such as quality of the air and water), availability of affordable and appropriate housing, contributing social factors (such as the population’s education and employment rates), and the overall access to healthcare. The rankings also account for health outcomes determined by average length of life and number of premature deaths. Considering the high ranking of life length compared to the low ranking of quality of health, people in the Valley are living longer, yet unhealthier lives.
The results of the County Health Rankings are indicative of how a person is affected by their health quality, particularly later in life. Senior citizens make up a growing proportion of the Lehigh Valley’s population, and in 2015, over 15% of those over age 65 were being treated for depression. Disease management programs such as, diabetic monitoring can improve health outcomes and quality of care. In 2015, at least 86% of diabetic seniors enrolled in Medicare received diabetic monitoring, consistent with the national average.
Health is tied directly into all aspects of people’s lives. Recreational opportunities affect how often people exercise. Transportation, housing, education and economic opportunities affect people’s mental health, and determine environmental conditions and one’s accessibility to care, but the most effective way to improve quality of life is by practicing good health behaviors and eliminating bad ones. Opioid addiction is a growing crisis on a national level, and the Lehigh Valley is not excluded from its impacts. In 2016, Lehigh and Northampton County coroners reported 96 opioid overdose deaths, with an additional 73 from multiple drugs that may be opioid-related, according to a report by The Morning Call. If this crisis should continue to rise, it will have greater impacts on the economy, environmental conditions, and health deterioration.
Planning can help people’s behaviors by identifying health issues and providing opportunities to address them, such as supporting infrastructure that increases access to alternative transportation methods, such as walking and biking.