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Fat City: Unsafe Neighborhoods and Obesity

May 11, 2006
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Mothers of young children are more likely to be obese when they perceive their neighborhoods as unsafe, according to a new study in the journal Obesity.

Researchers from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Mathematica Policy Research and the University of Pennsylvania analyzed perceived neighborhood safety and obesity in women with young children.

Connection with one's neighbors, characterized as neighborhood cohesion, did not have a significant relation to the mother's obesity.

"The characteristics of neighborhoods can influence how and where people spend their time, and unsafe neighborhoods are often thought to contribute to the obesity epidemic by decreasing outdoor activity," stated study leader Hillary Burdette, M.D., a pediatrician at CHOP. "Despite a hypothesized link between neighborhood safety and obesity, this was the first study to evaluate this association among adults."

Using data collected in 20 large U.S. cities in 15 different states for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, researchers focused on 2,400 women with preschool children, and found that mothers who perceived their neighborhoods to be safer had a lower body-mass index and were less likely to be obese, even after accounting for multiple measures of socioeconomic status.

The percentage of mothers who were obese increased from 37 percent in the safest neighborhoods to 46 percent in the least safe neighborhoods.

The women were more likely to be obese if they were less educated, unmarried, had lower income, had a depressive episode in the prior year, or were Hispanic or non-Hispanic black. Women who were more educated, married, non-Hispanic white, older, and who boasted higher incomes were more likely to perceive their neighborhoods as being safer and having more social cohesion.

This is the first study of its kind, according to the researchers, to find an association between perceived neighborhood safety and BMI. However, the researchers say that further research is needed, as it cannot necessarily be assumed that low levels of neighborhood safety cause obesity.

The National Institutes of Health funded the study.

In addition to Burdette, the co-authors of the study included Robert C. Whitaker, of Mathematica Policy Research Inc., of Princeton, N.J.; and Thomas A. Wadden, department of psychiatry over at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.


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