What Home Means to Health

As the WHO explains, individual and community health is driven by a variety of factors including the “social and economic environment, the physical environment, and an individual’s behaviors and characteristics”. Only when a person’s social and physical environments are taken into account can we address his or her full health profile from a comprehensive and holistic perspective. This year, we will hear from Speakers and Hive Innovators who are digging into these critical social and environmental factors as a means to improve health.

Miners in Appalachia began the process of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining—literally blowing off the tops of mountains—in order to access coal with lower sulfur content. While this type of surface mining holds fewer health risks for miners, the health implications for people living in close proximity to MTR locations had long been unknown. After moving to West Virginia, Professor Michael Hendryx became fascinated by this process of coal extraction and began to study the relationship between mountaintop removal coal mining and the health of people in nearby communities. He discovered an independent correlation between poor health outcomes and proximity to MTR sites, likely due to increased levels of the toxicant crystalline silica (a known contributor to lung cancer that is released from coal). Michael’s findings have been met with strong political resistance, perhaps, in part, because they are based on correlations, rather than causation. As he works to establish direct connections between environmental effects and physical health, mountaintop removal coal mining continues to take place, unleashing salts and trace minerals into the air and nearby mountain streams. Michael is hopeful that his research will encourage policymakers to consider the full picture when assessing the environmental impacts of any energy source.

Like Michael, Sara Vander Zanden of The BLOCK Project recognizes that where someone lives greatly contributes to their health. The BLOCK Project presents a new solution to homelessness, encouraging communities to place a BLOCK Home in the backyard of a single-family home on residentially-zoned blocks in Seattle, Washington. Their artfully designed 125-square-feet homes are off the grid and equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area, composting toilet, greywater system, and solar-panels. The BLOCK Project aims to “offer opportunities for healing and advancement to those formerly living on the fringes of society” by fostering connection and community relationships, halting the emotional and physical separation that coincides with the social injustice of homelessness.

A BLOCK Project home, designed by BLOCK Architects.

Surprisingly, our physical environment’s impact on our health starts as early as in our first home—the womb. In her research, neuroscientist Jill Goldstein explores the impact of a fetus’s physical environment on the prenatal development of the brain. Jill’s research has identified that prenatal disruptions (such as a traumatic experience or chronic stress) for a pregnant mother can impact her developing fetus’s brain circuitry. These changes in circuitry can predispose the fetus to certain chronic diseases—such as depression or CVD—years down the line. Stressful external circumstances—such as living in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas—can be physiologically internalized and not only affect an expectant mother’s well being, but also that of her unborn baby.

As these Speakers and Hive Innovators show, addressing the influences of our social and physical surroundings can improve health outcomes beyond the limits of our previous understanding. We’re excited to showcase these individuals and their game-changing work at TEDMED 2017—and we hope that you’ll join us.