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How postal codes impact the health of Brussels residents

Living in the poorer areas of Brussels means living with fewer green spaces and with lower air quality, Brussels Health Minister said. ©BELGA/NICOLAS MAETERLINCK

The place of birth of a child in Brussels can have an impact on their lifelong health and ultimately determine their life expectancy, a new regional health study shows.

Published on Tuesday, the study not only showed that socio-spatial inequalities have a tangible impact on the physical and mental health of residents in the Brussels-Capital Region, but also mapped the places where those inequalities were the strongest.

“There are great differences between Brussels districts when it comes to aspects related to health and to health services which can be linked to the socio-economic level of an area,” the study found.

Pooling insurance data from more than 1.1 million Belgians together, the study established for example, that a newborn in the northern municipality of Saint-Josse had a life expectancy of 80 years.

By contrast, a newborn in the more well-off southern district of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre has an estimated life expectancy of 85 years, the study found.

The study was carried out by the Common Community Commission (Cocom), a body which oversees mainly health and social matters affecting both the Francophone and Flemish residents of Brussels.

“The impacts of social inequalities in mental and physical health manifest from birth and pile up throughout life,” the Cocom wrote in an online statement, adding that those in less favourable situations were both more exposed to difficult work or life experiences as well as less equipped to face them.

While the 2016 data analysed for the study did not contain information about a person’s income or level of education, the researchers used insuree’s addresses to estimate their socioeconomic status.

“Spatial inequalities are great in Brussels, and people with a similar socio-economic profile are often concentrated around the same areas,” the study noted.

Place of residence linked with higher risk of diabetes, lower life expectancy

The analysis of the data further showed that the area that is known collectively as the “poor croissant of Brussels,” was systematically more exposed to a number of health risks or than residents in more prosperous southern areas.

Residents in the “poor croissant,” which includes the municipalities to the north and west of the city centre such as Molenbeek, Saint-Josse or the southwestern most parts of Saint-Gilles or Forest, presented a higher risk of contracting diabetes.

“The geographical distribution of the phenomenon of diabetes corresponds nearly perfectly with the map of income distribution in the Brussels-Capital Region,” with the authors noting that the “poor croissant” clearly jumped out in the map.

Conversely, a map looking at the distribution of breast cancer screenings among residents showed that residents in the more affluent neighbourhoods underwent screenings more often than those in poorer areas.

Despite there being a higher number of women from disadvantaged neighbourhoods taking part in free public screening programs, they still got screened less frequently than women in richer parts of Brussels, the study added.

“This study shows that living in the ‘poor croissant’ means living in an area with fewer green areas, older infrastructure, denser traffic and, therefore, lower air quality,” Health Minister Alain Maron told BX1.

The authors of the study said that a more comprehensive approach to public health policy was needed to tackle the issue, arguing that a change of perspective was necessary to better understand why “we heal individuals only to send them back to the living conditions that made them sick in the first place.”

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times

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