'Look beyond the numbers': Videos highlight health inequity in Valley, New Haven and Hartford

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Walterio Grant of Shelton was one of those interviewed for a documentary -- co-produced by Data Haven and Purple States -- about health inequality in the Lower Naugatuck Valley.

Walterio Grant of Shelton was one of those interviewed for a documentary -- co-produced by Data Haven and Purple States -- about health inequality in the Lower Naugatuck Valley.

Contributed /Data Haven and Purple States

It’s well known by now that life expectancy can vary widely based on where people live. In New Haven, that translates to a dramatic difference in lifespan even among people at different ends of the same street.

According to one of a series of short documentaries co-produced by the New Haven-based nonprofit organization Data Haven, there is an 11-year difference in life expectancy between people who live on opposite ends of Whalley Avenue, one of the city’s main roads.

That’s one of many shocking facts unearthed in the three short films, each of which focuses on the health problems of a different geographical area. In addition to New Haven, the documentaries — which can be found on YouTube — spotlight Hartford and the Lower Naugatuck Valley.

Though there is a lot of data about health in Connecticut, it means little unless people can see how actual human beings are affected by issues such as opioid addiction and heart disease, says Cynthia Farrar, co-founder and executive producer with Purple States, a New Haven-based production company that worked on the films.

A still from one of the three short documentaries produced by Data Haven and Purple States about health inequality in Connecticut.

A still from one of the three short documentaries produced by Data Haven and Purple States about health inequality in Connecticut.

Contributed /Purple States and Data Haven

“It seems to me having good data is important, but then you need to look beyond the numbers or try to understand the numbers and the people they affect,” she says.

The films are part of Visualizing and Powering Healthy Lives, a $2 million grant initiative that supports 10 projects across the United States, using data from the United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project to explore how communities can address health disparities.

Each documentary spotlights not just a different community, but also how that community is affected by specific health issues. The New Haven and Naugatuck Valley films focus on heart disease, and the Hartford short addresses the opioid crisis.

Data Haven executive director Mark Abraham says the movies aim to use personal stories to bring the implications of health data to life. For instance, one of the people interviewed for the Naugatuck Valley documentary is Shelton resident Walterio Grant, who speaks about his battles as a smoker and how he has worked to quit.

Smoking rates, according to the film, are 20 percent higher in the Valley than they are statewide. Rates of premature death from heart disease — for which smoking is a risk factor — are 14 percent higher in the Valley.

In the film, Grant talks about how he started smoking at age 21 and about his battles with job insecurity, which contributed to stress and other emotional issues. Eventually, he got a job with Griffin Hospital and joined its smoking cessation program.

“This was actually my third time trying to quit,” he says in the film. “When I quit smoking, I lost weight. I had more energy. I got promoted at work. It was just a snowball effect.”

Farrar says one of the things she learned while making the film about the Valley is how important employers can be in protecting the well-being of their workers, through efforts such as health screenings and smoking cessation programs.

“They have a really huge role to play in promoting cardiovascular health,” she says.

The New Haven documentary, meanwhile, focuses on the role food insecurity — and inadequate access to healthy foods — can play in heart disease.

One of the people featured in the film is Myra Smith, a neighborhood services advocate for Christian Community Action. She discusses the problems that most affect people in the Hill region of New Haven, including housing and food insecurity.

“We work here,” she says in the film. “We live here. We eat here. We raise our kids here. Our kids play with the kids here. This is our community.”

Merryl Eton, the director of Christian Community Action’s advocacy and education project, says she recommended that Smith be interviewed for the film. Eton says health disparities among different cities — and in different areas of the same city — have long troubled her and others, and she was happy to draw more attention to the issue.

“One of the things [the COVID-19 pandemic] has done is put a laser focus on things I always cared about, including the fact that there are enormous inequities in our community and the world,” Eton says. “We are hoping that the film will translate into changes in public policy.”

Farrar says she and others at Data Haven and Purple States hope the same thing.

“The goal is really advocacy,” she says. “That was the goal from the start. We want these stories to be seen by people with power — people who have resources and people with leverage.”

To view the films and for more information on the project, visit https://ctdatahaven.org/reports/powering-healthy-lives-connecticut.

acuda@ctpost.com; Twitter: @AmandaCuda