The 7 Top Causes of Death in America are a Product of our Built Environment

(and number 10 would help too)

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 10.20.56 AM

America and our cities have been addicted to single family houses and spread out development for over 70 years now.  Not only have we made single family homes with plenty of distance between neighbors the norm, but we went one step further in attempting to make our neighborhoods look alike by banning small owner-occupant businesses such as bakeries, restaurants, and shops, effectively requiring a car dependent lifestyle for the vast majority of residents.


What are we left with?  A society where people are pressed for free time due to long commutes and leaves little time for exercise that are an inherent aspect of running errands in a walkable neighborhood.  The exercise that many people in walkable neighborhoods get from walking to the grocery store, restaurant, or hair salon commonly isn’t realized by families of less means that are forced to buy less expensive housing further from downtown and the amenities they typically would like to enjoy.


While lots of literature explores the effects of living in a non-walkable neighborhood, Jeff Speck’s Walkable City does a great job of discussing the economic impacts:


    “Families of limited means move farther and farther away from city centers in order to find housing that is cheap enough to meet bank lending requirements.  Unfortunately, in doing so, they often find that driving costs outweigh any housing savings. This phenomenon was documented in 2006, when gasoline averaged $2.86/ gallon. At that time, households, in the auto zone were devoting roughly a quarter of their income to transportation, while those in walkable neighborhoods spent will under half that amount.

    No surprise then, that as gasoline broke $4.00 per gallon and the housing bubble burst, the epicenter of foreclosures occurred at the urban periphery, “places that required a fleet of cars in order to participate in society, draining their mortgage carrying capacity,” as Chris Leinberger notes.”


Couple the added financial stress of spread out single family development, to the health impacts of less exercise and you start to see a pattern in the top 7 causes of death in the US.  Let’s go through them specifically:


  1. Heart disease: 635,260 deaths – Researchers found that heart attack patients who participated in a formal exercise program experienced a reduced death rate of 20 to 25 percent. Some studies showed an even higher rate of reduction. Several large reviews of past research also conclude that those patients who engage in exercise-based rehabilitation after a heart attack are more likely to live longer.
  2. Cancer: 598,038 deaths – There is substantial evidence that higher levels of physical activity are linked to lower risks of several cancers. 24% of colon, 12% breast, endometrial 20%.
  3. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 161,374 deaths – Motor Vehicle Traffic Deaths make up the 2nd largest share with 37,461 in 2016.  Logically, fewer trips would result in fewer deaths.  The first largest is “accidental” overdose which has been largely correlated with a lack of social belonging and access to mental health facilities which can be hard to access in far flung, car dependent neighborhoods.
  4. Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 154,596 deaths – Exercise — especially exercise that works your lungs and heart — has many benefits for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Exercise can:Improve how well your body uses oxygen. … Strengthen your heart, lower your blood pressure, and improve your circulation.
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 142,142 deaths – Exercise helps lower high blood pressure, which is an important risk factor for stroke. Exercise can help you control other things that put you at risk, such as obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes.
  6. Alzheimer’s disease: 116,103 deaths – According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent. What’s more, exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems. -
  7. Diabetes: 80,058 deaths – Aerobic Exercise. Aerobic exercise makes your heart and bones strong, relieves stress and improves blood circulation. It also lowers your risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke by keeping your blood glucose.
  8. (Bonus)  #10 is Suicide, and studies have shown that the increased feeling of community that comes from walkable vibrant neighborhoods (social capital) correlates to a significant reduced risk of suicide.  Social Capital is the relationships you generate to have friends, family, mentors, and meaning in your life. It has been found, that by living close to neighbors, you increase your odds of chance encounters that often lead to relationships and provide more meaningful lives.

The end result is that a denser, more walkable neighborhood, provides for a higher quality and quantity of life with an added bonus of more meaningful relationships and purpose for a neighborhoods residents.  This should be a no-brainer for city and government leadership looking to improve the quality of the their residents lives.











Leave a Reply