Do you live in a healthy neighborhood?
Is there such a thing as an unhealthy neighborhood?
Personal choice has a big impact on many aspects of our health, but do we really have the wherewithal to choose our lifestyle, or do most of us fall into a pattern determined by what’s easy to do and what everyone else is doing? Sure, there are a few motivated individuals who swim against the stream and set their own trend. Most of us don’t. Whether we realize it or not, we follow the lead of our parents and friends and do what’s easy, along a path of least resistance.
There’s no doubt that our collective lifestyles have changed dramatically in the past decades. Convenience is everywhere—we do less physical work around the house, we drive a lot, and cheap highly processed calorie-dense foods are everywhere.
But as I’m sure anyone driving through urban and suburban neighborhoods observes, there are great differences between regions. Some neighborhoods have green spaces, joggers, bikers, kids playing outside and farmer's markets and supermarkets with colorful inviting fresh produce. Not far away there are neighborhoods where all life is within four walls, fresh food sources are limited and corner and convenience stores are the sole resource for food.
Can a neighborhood influence health?
That’s a question researchers led by Amy Auchincloss set out to answer in a recent paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine. They wanted to see if neighborhood’s physical attributes and the availability of healthy food affected the incidence of type 2 diabetes.
The researchers followed 2,285 people, aged 45-84 years at baseline, from three different regions in the US for five years for the development of diabetes. Among the data collected was income, assets, educational level, family history, smoking status, body mass index (BMI), exercise level and dietary measurements.
The data on neighborhood resources was obtained from an independent sample of the participants’ locales (not from the study population). The residents were asked if their neighborhood was easy or pleasurable to walk in, has ample opportunity for physical activity, or if they see other people jog or play sports. The food environment was determined by asking whether there’s a large selection of fresh fruits and vegetables available, whether produce is high quality, and whether there’s a large selection of low-fat products available.
During follow-up, 233 of the study participants (about 10 percent) developed type 2 diabetes.
And the result: Better neighborhood resources for food and exercise were associated with lower incidence of type 2 diabetes
• Participants living in great neighborhoods for activity and healthy food had 36% less chance of developing type 2 diabetes than their counterparts living in neighborhoods with poor resources for activity and healthy food.
• After adjusting for individual variables—such as age, family history of diabetes, socioeconomic status, smoking, physical activity and dietary factors—the environmental association persisted.
• The association was slightly reduced after also adjusting also for BMI.
The authors conclude:
“The prevalence of type 2 diabetes has increased substantially in the past 30 years. This makes it all the more urgent to identify environmental features that may mitigate risk of type 2 diabetes. Our results are consistent with the hypotheses that improving environmental features—such as having nearby, pleasant, safe destinations within walking distance and improving the availability of healthy foods—may halt increases in type 2 diabetes incidence. Many urban environments have developed with insufficient consideration for the ways that environments can promote or discourage healthy behaviors.
Current efforts to foster health-promoting environments include designing and modifying physical environments, such as zoning residential neighborhoods to require safe sidewalks, creating parks and attractive public green spaces, and improving public transportation so that residents rely less on their cars; supporting fresh-food farmers' markets in low-income, urban neighborhoods; and assisting stores in those neighborhoods in improving their selection of healthy foods.
There is unlikely to be a panacea for the obesity epidemic and rising epidemic of type 2 diabetes. However, altering our environments so that healthier behaviors and lifestyles can be easily chosen may be one of the key steps in arresting and reversing these epidemics.”
An accompanying editorial by Mitchell Katz discusses how hard it is to tease apart environmental and individual behavior influences on health. This study is by no means the last word on this complicated issue. But Katz sees us all as participants in a huge multinational study of the impact of the structural environment on diabetes.
In the past 50 years we in the developed world have stopped walking, our household chores are now reduced to pushing a button, fast food and super-sized meals replaced our food, and processed foods are easier to find than fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And while a cause and effect is hard to prove, Katz sees this grand experiment going really badly—these environmental changes coincide with skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes all around the developed world.
Katz calls for a change in our environment, one that would make exercise and eating right much easier and more routine.
What do you think of your neighborhood? Does it promote health or encourage unhealthy habits?