In Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, the statistics on infant mortality tell a disturbing story of racial health disparities. Here, African-American babies are three or even four times more likely to die in their first year of life than white infants. They also are more likely to be born with a low birth weight or born prematurely. Their mothers are more likely to be obese or not gain enough weight during their pregnancy, increasing their risk of preterm birth, the biggest cause of infant death.
To better understand the racial disparity in maternal and infant health, the Aetna Foundation has awarded a $100,000 grant to the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Researchers will study the potential influence of living in stressful neighborhoods on the health of African-American mothers and their babies.
“African Americans are more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods with limited options to buy healthy foods, more access to alcohol outlets, and less access to other important health-related resources,” said Dara D. Mendez, Ph.D., M.P.H., who is leading the study at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. “We want to understand the influence of these neighborhood factors on the higher obesity rates among black women and the higher rates of adverse birth outcomes for their offspring.”
The study will focus on Pittsburgh and other towns in Allegheny County. Researchers will map the locations of the county’s food and alcohol outlets and the neighborhoods’ racial makeup, income levels and other demographics. Researchers will then compare their food and alcohol outlet map to infant birth and death records from 2003 to 2010, which includes information about the mothers’ pre-pregnancy body mass index and weight gain during their pregnancies.
“Racial disparities in infant mortality and the obesity epidemic are two of the most critical public health issues we face today,” said Gillian Barclay, D.D.S., Dr.PH., the Aetna Foundation’s vice president of national grant making. “We know that a community’s built environment can play a role in both, but there’s so much we don’t know yet. We hope that by studying specific environmental factors, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh can shed light on how to change neighborhoods with high health risks into healthier communities.”