Want Better Health? Either Move or Improve Your 'Hood

Study suggests that living in lower income neighborhoods can worsen your health.

Posted: 10/26/2011 10:10 AM EDT
Filed Under food desert

Study suggests that living in lower income neighborhoods can worsen your health.

Where you live may play a factor in your health outcomes, suggests a study conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

 

In the early 1990s, HUD conducted an interesting experiment. Using more than $70 million of their own funds, HUD offered 1,800 lower-income women living in housing projects in Chicago's South Side or the Bronx in New York City the opportunity of moving to a home in a more affluent neighborhood for at least a year. Researchers checked back in on these women 10 years later and found that the women who moved had lower rates of diabetes and extreme obesity.

 

The Associated Press reported:

 

About 16 percent of the women who moved had diabetes, compared with about 20 percent of women who stayed in public housing. And about 14 percent of those who left the projects were extremely obese, compared with nearly 18 percent of the other women.

 

The small-but-significant differences offered some of the strongest support yet for the idea that where you live can significantly affect your overall health, especially if your home is in a low-income area with few safe places to exercise, limited food options and meager medical services.

 

"This study proves that concentrated poverty is not only bad policy, it's bad for your health," said Shaun Donovan, HUD secretary, in a press release announcing the results.

 

Originally, health outcomes were not the focus of this project. HUD wanted to see if location impacted one's education and income level.

 

Researchers speculate the following to explain their findings:

 

— Lower-income neighborhoods do not have the same rates of available healthy foods — aka "food deserts."

 

— Unsafe neighborhoods and high crime levels impact physical activity outside such as walking and jogging.

 

— Less access to health insurance and quality health care in low-income areas.

 

— The long-term stress of living in such an environment riddled with crime and poor health may impact the hormones that control weight.

 

“Where you live can be critical to your health," said Secretary for Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. “Families need quality housing and neighborhoods with clean air, safe places to play and exercise and access to healthy and affordable foods to promote better health and wellness.”

 

It's crucial to point out that this study isn't a perfect science by any means.

 

Because researchers weren’t looking at health in the beginning, the women's health — weight, blood glucose levels, etc — were not recorded in the beginning. Also, most of the women moved after the year, limiting the influence that the affluent area had on their overall health. Not to mention the women who moved out were not perfectly healthy, either. Fourteen percent were extremely obese — a rate of times the national average. This may point to something cultural, which was not explained in the data.

 

In the end, these findings are not telling us anything we don't already know. It's not uncommon knowledge that some of us have moved out of the 'hood to have better opportunities in life. Wouldn't it have been a nice gesture had the money that HUD used to move people out been instead invested in the actual communities they lived in? Just a thought.

 

Read the full results of the study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, here.

(Photo: REUTERS/Lee Celano)

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