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Addressing disparities in health and life expectancy

Drastic health discrepancies exist in local neighborhoods. These organizations and citizens are taking action.

There is about a 23-year difference in life expectancy between part of Back Bay, where life expectancy is 91.6 years, and part of Roxbury, where life expectancy is 68.8 years, according to a 2023 Boston Public Health Commission report.

Examining the impact of social determinants of health — non-medical factors that influence health outcomes — is critical to addressing these inequities, the report notes. This includes factors such as access to and quality of housing, education, employment, environmental health, health care, public safety, food access, income, and health and social services.

“You can run about one mile between Back Bay and Roxbury,” says Jeff Davis, co-founder of the Boston chapter of Black Men Run. That’s precisely what the group did during their 2023 Bridge the Gap run to bring awareness to the health and life expectancy disparities between different areas of Boston.

Black Men Run Boston is one of many groups working across fitness, mental health, and nutrition to positively impact social determinants in these communities.


Making an impact, one step at a time

It’s common knowledge that physical activities like running improve health. But what environmental factors make someone more likely to go for a run? High neighborhood socioeconomic status and the presence of green and blue spaces like bodies of water and recreation areas are associated with increased running, according to a 2022 study.

“We have the Comm. Aves. and the Esplanade in places like Back Bay,” Davis says. “Where’s the Comm. Ave. and Esplanade in Roxbury and Dorchester? Why do we have urban heat islands and all of a sudden you go one mile or two miles up the road and you have tree cover and shade?”

Black Men Run meets every Saturday in Dorchester or Roxbury. “We want to run in Black Boston,” Davis says. “As I grew up, I never ever even imagined seeing a group of Black men running. Like just running? You’re not being chased? … If you can’t see yourself doing a thing, you’re not going to imagine yourself being, or being part of, that thing.” Black Men Run’s message, that Black men deserve to invest in their health and well-being as much as anyone, is spreading. Black Men Run has grown to about 130 chapter members since Davis co-founded it in 2020. 

After their Saturday runs, the group gathers to stretch, laugh, and decompress. “It feels like a family reunion,” Davis says. He notes that this is the real “secret sauce” of the group: “We openly and actively talk about and express love for one another for simply being who we are.”

Nourishing and nurturing the community

Access to nutritious food is another essential social determinant of health that can vary even across connecting neighborhoods.

“Food is our fuel,” says Seana Weaver, the Fresh Truck program director at About Fresh. “It’s what keeps us going during the day; it’s what helps us to grow, develop, learn, and play.” Fresh Truck is a mobile market with more than 20 regular stops throughout the city where quality produce is otherwise less accessible and affordable. Dorchester and Roxbury, where many of the Fresh Truck stops are located, have significant food access disparities. West Roxbury is classified as a food desert. At each visit, community members can purchase produce for about 20 to 30 percent lower prices than at traditional grocery stores, Weaver says.


Fresh Truck hosts nutritionists and chefs at some markets to talk about recipes and the inventory available. They also partner with the Brigham and Women’s Community Care Van program at several locations to create an access point for shoppers, who may not otherwise easily have the time or option, to have their blood pressure taken, get vaccines, or learn more about their health.

John Santos, general manager of the Dorchester Food Co-op, believes they’ll make a similar community impact. The co-op already counts over 1,600 as members with a say in how it operates, including that it will employ people from the local neighborhood, pay fair wages, and prioritize local and sustainable products.

“The more nutritious food that you can offer, the less processed foods, the healthier a person could potentially be,” says Santos.

“If a family has good healthy food to start the day, the children that go to school are going to have the best chance to have the energy to pay attention. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to be distracted or be kids, but it means that we’re giving them the best shot.”

John Santos, General Manager, Dorchester Food Co-op

Mental health matters

“We know from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, trauma can have a negative impact on an individual’s life expectancy,” says Dr. Myisha Rodrigues, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Massachusetts. “We can anticipate that the impact of trauma on life expectancy would be greater for individuals who are not white, middle class, and do not have [health care] access.”


On top of this, there are “quite a few barriers” that make it more difficult for Bostonians in neighborhoods like Roxbury to access mental health care, Rodrigues says. Some barriers include costs, stigma, and a shortage of therapists who identify as people of color, queer, or disabled. NAMI Massachusetts provides a range of programs to address these barriers, including Compass Helpline, which offers information, ideas, resources, and support to help people navigate the complex mental health system.

“A person’s mental health and physical health are not siloed,” Rodrigues notes. Many groups that clearly impact physical health also make a difference in mental health. At Black Men Run, for example, Davis says it’s not uncommon for the men to be vulnerable with each other and to share and utilize mental health resources.

“We did a survey recently, and every person that responded to the survey said 100 percent being a part of Black Men Run has helped them improve their mental health,” Davis says.

While there’s still plenty of work to be done on improving health inequities within the city, Boston is stronger together. Anyone, no matter what neighborhood they live in, can make an impact by supporting organizations working to improve community health in the neighborhoods that need it most.

As Davis says, “it’s going to take a community.”

Point32Health is a not-for-profit health and well-being organization, guiding and empowering healthier lives for all. We are committed to improving health outcomes and providing access to affordable, quality health care regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, orientation, gender identity, or ability. For more information on what we’re doing to advance health equity, visit our website. Together, our family of companies — Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan — help our members and communities navigate the health care ecosystem through a broad range of health plan offerings and tools.

This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.