If there were a song for your 2021 Martha’s Vineyard playlist, a contender would be “This Must Be the Place” by the Talking Heads.
With the benefit of hindsight, reflective gratitude, financial considerations, and a remote work environment that likely won’t quit, you may be pondering the question, “If I can live and work anywhere, what place would that be?”
Experts often rank cities by several metrics: life expectancy, pollution index, outdoor activities, access to quality food, annual hours worked, happiness levels, hours of sunshine, financial security, safety, and various health outcomes.
Several studies had Spain leading the global ranking, with the title of “healthiest city on Earth” going to the city of Valencia (Mediterranean diet, easygoing lifestyle, outdoor activities). Other cities on the leaderboard included Canberra (low pollution), Tokyo (low obesity rate), Berlin (average life expectancy 80 years), Zurich (safety), Helsinki (happiest city, lowest number of yearly working hours), and Vienna (low gym membership dues, culture). And one study examined the best city to get sleep in, which went to Amsterdam (cycling, fresh air, or a good time?).
When specifically looking within the U.S., several studies assessed metrics like being free from illness, injury, or poor mental conditions. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world and spending a record share of GDP on healthcare, we continue to struggle with a high prevalence of chronic conditions like obesity, health inequities, and other factors that contribute to poor health, like access to fair housing, employment, safety, and education.
Looking at data from America’s Health Rankings, the top five states for health were Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, and Utah. Martha’s Vineyard, part of Massachusetts, has several compelling data points that make it a contender for a healthy and happy place to live.
When looking at Data USA for Dukes County, Martha’s Vineyard ranks above the national average for life expectancy (especially females at 84 years, versus a national average of 81 years) and exceeds the national average for physical activity. The Vineyard is lower across the board on obesity (21 percent vs. 41 percent for the nation), injuries, and smoking prevalence. The median household income is $71,811, with just 5 percent of the population uninsured. However, the Island is slightly higher on melanoma and heavy drinking. Of course, housing is extremely expensive, and ticks remain a serious problem. My mom came to visit two weeks ago and left my house in Aquinnah with a tick bite, and is now on a round of prophylactic doxycycline. All in, US News and World Report rates Dukes County No. 38 (out of 500 locations) in its rankings, noting room for improvement on areas like equity and housing.
Our above-average health achievements on-Island are largely due to a high-quality public health infrastructure, clinical leadership, and caring islanders. Several organizations have made our health and well-being their mission, like Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard (HAMV), focused on an aging-friendly Island meeting the needs of our rapidly growing 65-plus population (21 percent of Island residents are over the age of 80), and the impressive Health Council of Dukes County, 37 members strong from various disciplines focused on integrated health and wellness care delivery. When a family member from Minnesota broke her back on the Island, she found the medical and rehab care at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on par with her Mayo Clinic. Anyone who has encountered the Martha’s Vineyard healthcare system, as I did this year during COVID, saw firsthand an Island culture of prevention and wellness.
After the trials and tribulations of the past year with the COVID pandemic, my family and I have never been more appreciative of the Aquinnah sunsets, the five-minute foot ferry over to Menemsha for lobster on the beach, a long run around the awe-inspiring and famous lighthouse, and, of course, the cool breeze and fresh air that comes in and out on Dogfish Bar.
As the Talking Head song puts it: “Home is where I want to be, But I guess I’m already there … I guess I must be having fun, the less we say about it the better, make it up as we go along, feet on the ground, head in the sky, it’s OK I know nothing’s wrong … nothing.”
Meghan FitzGerald is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and author of “Ascending Davos: A Career Journey from the Emergency Room to the Boardroom.” She resides in Aquinnah with her husband and rescue Weimaraners.