Kentucky researchers to examine neighborhood health

In effort to diagnose places, researchers will look at environmental indicators for health

By: - August 1, 2023 3:19 pm

Kevin Cosby, the president of Simmons College of Kentucky, talks with University of Louisville President Kim Schatzel. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – Eighteen months from now, Kentucky researchers hope to know how to diagnose neighborhoods in much the same way doctors diagnose illnesses in the human body. 

A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant of $500,000 will fund a Louisville-based neighborhood study, featuring researchers from Simmons College of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, leaders from the institutions announced Friday. Experts from Rice University and the University of Kentucky will also contribute. 

The year-and-a-half-long study seeks to understand what neighborhood factors drive health inequities. Researchers are particularly interested in closing the nearly 13-year life expectancy gap between people living in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Louisville compared with those in white neighborhoods. 

Kevin Cosby, the president of Simmons College of Kentucky. (Photo provided).

Kevin Cosby, the president of Simmons, said it’s important to keep in mind that deficits don’t reflect people. 

“All of the unfortunate disparities that (were) created through structural and systemic racism (have) nothing to do with deficits in Black people,” he said. They have “everything to do with deficits of opportunity that (have) never been extended to the Black community.” 

What will researchers look at? 

Researchers will, among other things, survey people door-to-door in Louisville’s Crescent Hill and California neighborhoods. They’ll also look at what environmental factors impact health outcomes. 

The surveys should begin in September, led by Nancy Seay, the chair of the James R. L. Diggs Department of Sociology at Simmons. Students in her class, Participatory Action Research, will help with the surveys. (University of Louisville students can also take the class). 

If you live in California or Crescent Hill and want to participate in the project, email Patricia Reeves at  [email protected]

Community partners who want to learn more about the project and opportunities for collaboration may contact Lauren Anderson at [email protected].

University of Louisville President Kim Schatzel said Friday “we know that health just doesn’t happen in hospitals or doctors offices.” 

“The ZIP code that you live in has a tremendous impact in terms of your chronic disease, your ability to be able to progress through school,” and more, Schatzel said. 

Ted Smith, the  director of the UofL Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil in the Envirome Institute, will help Seay lead the research. 

Nancy Seay, the chair of the James R. L. Diggs Department of Sociology at Simmons College of Kentucky.
(Photo provided).

The research must answer why certain disparities exist, and how the city can close those gaps. ZIP codes, researchers said, shouldn’t determine life expectancy and other health outcomes. 

We think that in addition to diagnosing and treating people, we could be diagnosing and treating places,” Smith said Friday. 

At the end of the study, researchers want to better understand what makes a “universal basic neighborhood” (UBN), in which residents can thrive. They also want to have a playbook that helps neighborhoods define their needs and ways to address them. 

“I don’t think that there’s such a thing as a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ neighborhood,” Seay said. “But I think there are differences in access to resources … and that’s what makes neighborhoods different.” 


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Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky who's covered everything from crime to higher education. She spent nearly two years on the metro breaking news desk at The Courier Journal. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. As the Kentucky Lantern's health reporter, she focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, children's welfare, COVID-19 and more.