Obesity and the Disabled Population in New York City

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Abigail Franklin
Vice President for Development & Communications
The New York Academy of Medicine

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings of the study?

Answer: The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) Overweight and Obesity Brief was derived from information gathered for the NYS Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). The BRFSS is an annual statewide telephone survey of adults administered by the provide information on behaviors, risk factors, and utilization of preventive services. The survey conducted in 2011 found that nearly 25% of adults in NYS are obese and another 36% overweight. It also found that obesity rates are higher among adults who are Black (32.5%), earn an annual household income less than $25,000 (26.8%), have less than a college education (27.1%), or are currently living with a disability (34.9%). These findings bring to light that social and economic factors in our communities can be a major contributor to health disparities, like greater risk of obesity among people of color, low income individuals, and people who are disabled.

MedicalResearch.com: Were any of the findings unexpected?

Answer: It is very disappointing to see the continuing disparity for communities of color and alarming to see that people with disabilities have such high rates of obesity. This can be particularly problematic for people with disabilities that reside in institutional settings, live in a food desert, or rely on supplemental food programs. The data from this kind of research helps to guide and support the approach of DASH-NY (www.dashny.org), which is to address the policy, systems, and environmental changes that will result in more equitable health status for all communities.

MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Answer: People with disabilities in every instance deserve attention to their whole health, not just their disability. Obesity is a preventable condition; its disproportionate prevalence among people with disabilities can be addressed though a combination of supports in the community and the health care system. Health professionals have an opportunity to think about ways that they can get involved within their own practices and at the community, state, and federal policy levels to help their disabled patients attain healthier lifestyles. We are seeing more and more physicians using their experience and position of influence to advocate for healthy public policy changes like Complete Streets laws and healthy food procurement policies which make it easier for everyone to access healthy food and take advantage of daily opportunities to be active.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Answer: More research and attention is needed on the prevention interventions that particularly work to address obesity disparities among disabled populations. A glaring gap in current obesity prevention research is the dearth of validated obesity prevention interventions for people with disabilities. Researchers should focus on very high risk populations, like communities of color and people with disabilities, to better identify replicable models that will meet their needs. Research is also needed to identify the best system-changes and financing mechanisms that will orient health care providers toward promoting prevention for all their patients, including those living with disabilities.

Press Release:

Alarming Obesity Rates Among New York’s Disabled Population

The New York State Department of Health’s new information on the high rates of obesity among the disabled community is deeply concerning, says a statewide coalition of disease prevention experts and advocates. According to the NYS DOH Overweight and Obesity Brief issued this week, almost 70% of New Yorkers with a disability are overweight or obese. This far exceeds rates for any other NYS population.

“We are troubled but not surprised to note that the percentage of people with disabilities who report being obese is 34.9%, and that there’s an additional 34.2% who are overweight—the highest of any category recorded,” said Denise Figueroa, the executive director of the Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley, an organization fighting for the rights of people with disabilities for over 25 years.

The Independent Living Center is among the members of the DASH-NY coalition working to “Design a Strong and Healthy New York,” and prevent obesity and chronic disease. Housed at The New York Academy of Medicine, DASH-NY works toward community and statewide policy and design changes that can increase access to healthy foods, physical activity, and appropriate health care.

“When you prioritize disease prevention, you realize there are many basic things we can do to transform the environment and make it easier for people to eat right and get exercise,” said Dr. Ruth Finkelstein, co-director of DASH-NY and NYAM SVP for Health Policy and Planning. “Take, for example, the fact that thousands of meals are served each day to New Yorkers with disabilities in group homes and through other organized programs. Every meal served could be a healthy meal that adheres to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

DASH-NY Co-chair Ellie Wilson, MS, RD, added, “Many individuals with disabilities are already more vulnerable to chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease as an aspect of their condition. Nutrition standards can ensure the food offered in care settings truly serves the health of our disabled residents. The standards also ensure the market has targets they can use to formulate products to meet these needs. Ultimately, better nutrition assists everyone with maximizing potential and improving quality of life.”

New York City has implemented nutritional standards for its agencies.  DASH-NY is working to ensure state agencies and community organizations get the technical assistance and funding they need to also implement such standards.

Additional DASH-NY priorities include assuring New Yorkers with poor health status, like people with disabilities and communities of color, get appropriate nutritional guidance from the primary care setting and removing barriers to physical activity.

“We must address the challenges in the environment that prevent people with disabilities from leading healthy lives,” said Figueroa, “including the lack of access to modified physical education in school settings for young people with disabilities, and the limited implementation of the NYS Complete Streets law.”

New York’s Complete Streets law, passed in August 2011, intends that all New York’s streets be made safe, accessible, and convenient for users of all ages and abilities, including pedestrians, bicyclists, users of public transit, and motorists. Promoting Complete Streets encourages routine physical activity, which can lower rates of chronic disease. Research recently completed at The New York Academy of Medicine indicates that the law is not being implemented across all communities.

DASH-NY is New York’s Statewide Obesity Prevention Policy Center and Coalition. For more information, visit www.dashny.org.

Posted on July 19, 2013

Last Updated on July 23, 2013 by Marie Benz MD FAAD