It Takes a Village

Obesity and diabetes associated with income level of neighborhood

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The neighborhood you call home shapes many aspects of your life. But does it affect your chances of becoming obese or developing diabetes? Researchers recently explored this question.

People who were able to move from poor neighborhoods to neighborhoods with low levels of poverty were less likely to become obese or develop diabetes, compared to those who remained in poor neighborhoods.

"Your community may affect your health."

There are many forces driving the current rise in obesity and diabetes. Doctors and researchers alike know that poor diets and a lack of exercise are the major contributors to diabetes. Jens Ludwig, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago, and colleagues wanted to see if neighborhood environment also plays a part in the development of obesity and diabetes.

Their study used data from a social experiment that involved more than 4,000 women with children living in public housing in areas with high levels of poverty.

Given the opportunity to move to low-poverty neighborhoods, the participants' risk of developing extreme obesity or diabetes was reduced. Even though the reduction in risk was only modest, the authors say it is potentially important.

The elements that cause this association between neighborhood and obesity and diabetes remain unknown. These mechanisms, the authors write, should be studied further, "given their potential to guide the design of community-level interventions intended to improve health."

For their study, Ludwig and colleagues gathered data from a social experiment in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development randomly assigned 4,498 women and their children to one of three groups.

The first group received housing vouchers that were redeemable only if they moved to areas with low poverty (where less than 10 percent of residents were poor) according to the census. This group also received counseling on moving. The second group received traditional vouchers without any counseling on moving. The third group, which did not get any opportunity to move, served as a control group.

The researchers took measures of body mass index or BMI (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) and HbA1c levels (a measure of blood sugar over three months).

The rates of obesity (BMI of 35 or more), severe obesity (BMI of 40 or more), and diabetes (HbA1c of 6.5 percent or more) were lower in the group with vouchers for low poverty areas than in the control group.

Rates of obesity were 4.61 percent lower in the group with low-poverty vouchers, compared to the control group. There was a 3.38 percent difference in rates of severe obesity, and a 4.31 percent difference for rates of diabetes.

There was not a significant difference between the group with traditional vouchers and the control group.

The study - which was funded in part by the Department of Housing and Urban Development - is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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Review Date: 
November 4, 2011
Last Updated:
November 9, 2011