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NY health chief: Better work environment can improve health

New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker at

New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker at the Long Island Association Executive Breakfast in Melville on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. Credit: Ed Betz

New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on Thursday urged Long Island business leaders to help government fix the nation’s health care system by working to change people’s living and working conditions.

A person’s health depends less on his or her genes, he said, rather it depends more on the individual’s environment, social circumstances and behavior, including exercise and diet.

One study, conducted a few years ago, showed that genetics account for just 30 percent of a person’s health, he said.

“There’s a saying in public health that your ZIP code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code,” Zucker said at a breakfast in Melville hosted by the Long Island Association, the region’s largest business group.

Education, employment, housing are factors that boost one’s health, he said. Those who graduate college can expect to live eight to nine years longer than those who did not graduate from high school. People who have jobs enjoy better health than those who don’t.

Having access to safe and affordable housing is also important, Zucker said. Affordable housing is defined as spending 30 percent or less of household income on rent or mortgage.

“If you have a decent roof over your head, it means better health,’’ he said. “All these things tie together.”

In 2013, Americans spent more on health care than people living in 12 other high-income countries, including Australia, Germany, Japan, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland, he said. Yet, the United States had the lowest life expectancy at birth, the highest rates of infant mortality and the highest prevalence of chronic disease.

“In fact, we were the only country that spent more on health care than on social services,” Zucker said. “Hopefully that will change.”

Some businesses are already taking the initiatives, he said. For instance, one health system upstate is buying air conditioners for patients with chronic lung disease, he said. Keeping patients healthy cuts the number of emergency room visits, which, in turn, saves money.

Companies can take simple steps right now to help employees become healthier by offering nutritious foods in the cafeteria and setting up wellness programs that encourage them to eat better, exercise more and keep stress to a minimum. Providing workers with job training and financial assistance helps them develop additional skills that advance their careers, he said.

After his speech, Zucker answered a dozen or so questions on topics ranging from the Zika virus to programs for veterans.

Assemb. Andrew Raia (R-East Northport), the ranking minority member on the health committee, wanted to know what the state is doing to raise the level of organ donation.

“New York is the first in many good things. Unfortunately, we are the last when it comes to organ donation.”

The state is working on it, Zucker said.


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