Where You Live Impacts Your Health More Than You Know

By Emily Murray

When given the option between living in an affluent neighborhood and a poverty-stricken one, the choice of course is obvious. Unfortunately, for most of us there is not a whole lot of choice involved. The collective lowering of the average  American income level increasingly causes many to live in areas that are run-down and are destitute. Now, according to the findings of a new study, there may be some serious health consequences to living in this type of environment as well.

The Project That Fueled the Study
Some of us may remember this project first-hand while others have likely heard it at least mentioned throughout the years. This program was offered in the 1990s by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and offered lower income families the opportunity to relocate to lower-poverty neighborhoods than the ones they were currently living in. This social experiment sought to find what impact moving out of a low-income area could have on education, income and employment. This project took place in LA, Baltimore, Chicago, New York and Boston.

Between the years 94 and 98 those taking part in the project were divided into 3 groups based on a random lottery. Those who were eligible were single women with children who brought home an income which was less than federal poverty level.

The 3 groups were as follows:
1.  1/3 are allotted a voucher to pay a portion of their rent if they moved to a higher income level were no more than 10% of the people living there were below the poverty level.
2. 1/3 received a voucher to subsidize housing no matter where they chose to live.
3. 1/3 were the control group which did not receive assistance or vouchers.

While this was an amazing opportunity for many, perhaps at the time they were unaware how much they would be positively impacting their own health, as well as the health of their family, by moving. These benefits are now becoming clear in a study released this week.

 The Study (Published in New England Journal of Medicine)
Over the years, these groups of people were tracked through surveys which reported things like income, education and overall health. Today there appears to be some fascinating results.

  • Living in places of severe poverty greatly increases the risk of obesity and developing diabetes.
  • Stress over finances can lead to health problems.
  • Improving income and housing areas significantly increases health as well.
To break it down further, the groups which went to lower-poverty areas were 19% less likely to have a BMI which was 40 or higher (this is the cutoff for morbid obesity) and 22% less likely to have levels of glucose that are usually associated with diabetes when compared to those families who remained in the public housing, according to a recent TIME article.

Why Does this Correlation Exist?
It’s hard to answer this question precisely, but from the conclusions drawn by researchers, it appears that it is a combination of factors, including –

*Lack of area to exercise
*Poor access to healthy food
*Lack of access to health care

Like most things, our first step towards developing a solution comes from an increase in our understanding. As more and more people become aware of the growing obesity  situation, the more that we as a society can work to correct the causes that are leading to these health conditions proactively, rather than treating these patients re-actively.