Hesperian Health Guides

Poverty and Inequality Hurt the Heart

Heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are making people’s lives more difficult and causing more deaths, both in low-income countries and in richer countries. These changes are mostly caused by an economic system that increases inequality, forces people who are poor to spend even more to live, and allows unhealthy foods and sweet drinks made by big businesses to become more common than food grown or prepared locally. Poverty often forces people to live in crowded conditions, with polluted air or water, with no safe places to walk or play. All this results in more heart disease and diabetes. These illnesses are worse for people who are poor and cannot get the health care or medicines they need. NWTND heart Page 24-1.png

Being denied equality or opportunities to make your life better is not just unfair, it harms your health. It may keep you from eating well, make you choose between a dangerous job or no job at all, evict you from your home, or leave you facing domestic violence. And if you try to change these conditions, you may face violence from the police. These difficult situations cause stress. Stress means both how we feel—sadness, worry, fear—and also how our bodies react when dealing with difficult situations.

Difficult situations cause stress

When problems arise, we feel stress. Stress can cause a physical reaction in the body such as fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, or feeling faint. These changes happen because the body changes the natural substances (hormones) it releases in response to something that scares or worries us. On the positive side, hormones alert our bodies to run from danger or fight an attacker. Stress hormones and their effects go away quickly if the cause of the stress goes away. But for people who are stressed all the time, their bodies never get a chance to recover, the effects of stress build up, and they are sick more often. Even when we become used to living with difficult situations and notice the stress less, it can still harm our bodies.

Stress can seem never-ending and overwhelming. Stress caused by living in a war, moving to a new place and not knowing the language or customs, family or relationship problems, housing or employment problems, fear for your safety, racism and discrimination—it all troubles the mind and wears down the body. You become less able to fight infection and illness and more likely to have health problems. Women and men who are always stressed are more likely to have heart disease and diabetes compared to those whose lives are not so difficult.

Stress—and the illnesses it causes—is a result of injustice and inequality. Working to change that is important to improving health.

People working for change help others and feel better

Creating strong community groups to solve problems of violence against women, better education for children, equality of services from city governments, or whatever important problems your community is facing, can reduce stress. This is not easy to do. But with patience and hard work communities bring about changes that improve life. See Health Actions for Women: Practical Strategies to Mobilize for Change, A Community Guide to Environmental Health, Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety and other Hesperian resources for ways to improve health by working on the problems facing your community.

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Fighting poverty, discrimination, violence, and isolation helps make living conditions better and jobs less dangerous. Working for change with others makes us feel more powerful, part of something bigger, and more connected to others. These feelings can relieve stress.

Getting junk food out and healthy food and exercise in

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Save your money for nutritious foods. Some foods make your body strong, but other foods just make big companies rich.

Communities and governments have to pay attention to why people do not get enough exercise, why it is hard to find fresh and healthy foods, and why junk foods are everywhere and often inexpensive. Some ways a community can work on this are:

  • Increase taxes on cigarettes and sweet drinks like Coca-Cola so people will buy less of them. Then fewer people will have problems with weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • Plant a school garden to provide nutritious food. Stop vendors from selling unhealthly foods near school property. This changes what children eat and also what they are used to eating.
  • Calm traffic so it is safer to walk to school, work, and the market. Make it easier and safer to get more exercise.
  • Increase access to parks and other areas where people can play sports, dance, walk, or exercise with others. When people work together for change they feel less alone and feel less stress. And that is good for the heart.
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I’m so glad our neighborhood committee got a sidewalk built. Now we can walk around town and get some exercise. Good for our hearts and legs!

Change the message!

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Be creative to get people talking and thinking about the harm of unhealthy products and who benefits from their sales. For example, make people take notice by changing an advertisement you have seen in a newspaper or on a billboard. You can share a new idea, expose an ugly truth about the product, or make the viewer feel the opposite of what the advertiser intended. It can be as simple as taping a new caption on an advertising flyer. Take a photo of it to show others or post it online. Or make an internet image with a caption (meme) to promote health and social justice. Hesperian’s Health Actions for Women: Practical Strategies to Mobilize for Change has ideas about group activities used in many different countries that you can adapt to the health issue that is important to your community.

This page was updated:10 Sep 2019