'Lifestyle Choices' Doesn’t Explain Why Black Americans Are Dying Younger and in Higher Numbers

It's not about making poor choices, says Mary Bassett. It's about the fact that people in the hardest hit neighborhoods (like Brownsville, Brooklyn) don't have enough options to choose from.

Mary Bassett: What is killing blacks in higher numbers at younger ages are the same things that kill all of us. Mainly cardiovascular disease, that means heart disease and stroke, and cancer of all kinds. So the same thing that takes people prematurely is the same burden that’s borne by all of us. It’s not a set of exotic or special diseases. Well New York has gotten healthier and healthier in recent years and our life expectancy now exceeds that of the United States as a whole. So on average New York City is definitely a place to live to be healthy. But that average doesn’t disclose the huge variation that we see by neighborhood.

We have recently completed a whole set of community health profiles that gives people information on their community district which along with the community boards are the smallest unit of decision-making in New York City. And we find that the community district actually Brownsville, which is the neighborhood that I moved to when I was a little girl and I came to New York, has a life expectancy that is 11 years shorter than the financial district. Now Brownsville, if we considered it a country and is doing a little bit worse than Peru, a little bit better than Samoa and about the same as Sri Lanka in terms of life expectancy. We’re talking about in a city that is one of the richest cities in the world, in the country, that is the richest country in the world, we have neighborhoods where the patterns of health look like those of a developing country. That’s not acceptable. In fact, it’s unconscionable. The first thing that people might think in trying to explain that is that the people in Brownsville are making a whole set of bad choices. They’re not careful about what they eat. They smoke too much. They don’t exercise enough. And that’s why they’re unhealthy. The lifestyle hypothesis is really powerful and in many ways, it replaced the genetic hypothesis as an explanation for the poor health of the black population. But let’s unpack what we mean by lifestyle. Nobody picks a substandard building to live in with terrible issues of rodent infestation and indoor allergens that trigger asthma. That’s not a lifestyle choice. No one picks a neighborhood, you know, because they want to feel unsafe there so that they won’t use the park. Or no one picks a neighborhood where there are no grocery stores or supermarkets that carry a range of vegetables that allow them to make the healthy choices we want them to make. So when we talk about lifestyle, we’re often mixing it up with poverty and all the constraints that poor, segregated neighborhoods place on people’s ability to live a health life. So it’s not about choice. It’s about the fact that people don’t have enough choice.

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With more than 30 years in public health in America and Africa, NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Mary Travis Bassett says that the same diseases — heart disease, stroke, and cancer of all kinds — that are killing white Americans are killing black Americans younger and in higher numbers. Historically, public health has tended to "blame the victim," pointing the finger at lifestyle choices like diet. But, says Bassett, the conditions that lead to those choices, and other environmental factors contributing to the disparity, are often beyond the control of the people at risk.

It's not about making poor choices, says Mary Bassett. It's about the fact that people in the hardest hit neighborhoods (like Brownsville, Brooklyn) don't have enough options to choose from.

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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

Videos
  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

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Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

Credit: Mike Workman/Adobe Stock
Personal Growth
  • Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
  • Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
  • It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
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