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Better Neighborhood, Better Health

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Location, location, location. The three most important words in real estate turn out to be significant for health as well.

In today’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, a research team based at the University of Chicago show that low-income women with children who moved from high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhoods experienced notable long-term reductions in diabetes and extreme obesity.

The research was the first to employ a randomized experimental design on a large scale to learn about the connections between neighborhood poverty and health.

For the study, Jens Ludwig and Stacy Lindau from the University of Chicago, and a team of scholars from around the country, studied 4,498 poor women and children, who from 1994 to 1998, enrolled in a residential mobility program called Moving to Opportunity.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) operated MTO in five United States cities – Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

MTO was based on the Chicago Gautreaux program, established in the late 1970s as part of a court-imposed public housing desegregation remedy. It was designed to study the effect of neighborhoods on employment, income and education in families with children living in cities with a 40% or greater poverty rate. It wasn’t originally focused on health, but Ludwig and his team were curious about how poverty in the U.S. correlated with health issues such as obesity and diabetes and they persuaded HUD to add the public health research component.

Moving to Opportunity enrolled low-income families with children living in distressed public housing. Families volunteered for the experiment, and based on the results of a random lottery, were offered the chance to use a housing voucher subsidy to move into a lower-poverty community. Other families were randomly assigned to a control group that received no special assistance under the program.

According to HUD: The four Chicago census tracts targeted for MTO had an average poverty rate of 67 percent and contained six public and assisted housing developments, which housed a total of 2,197 households. The average income among residents of the six targeted projects was $7,114, and over 75 percent of residents received some form of public assistance. Virtually all of these households were African American (99.4) and 70 percent were female-headed.

The NEJM study collected information during 2008-10 on families who had enrolled in the program 10 to 15 years before. The research team directly measured the heights and weights of MTO participants, and it also collected blood samples to test for diabetes.

At the time of follow-up, 17 percent of the women in the study’s control group were morbidly obese (body mass index at or above 40), and 20 percent had diabetes. However, in the group of women who were offered housing vouchers to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods, the rates of morbid obesity and diabetes were both about one fifth lower than in the control group.

“The initial aim of the study was to help families be safer, but it turns out there’s an effect on these really important health outcomes that’s in the ballpark of lifestyle and medical interventions,” Ludwig said. “That’s pretty striking,”

“This is one of the first studies to show that where you live – the circumstances of your neighborhood, the social characteristics of the people around you – all these things may play a role in your own health,” said Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist at the Yale School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, during an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Your health is not just what happens to you, but is influenced by all of those around you and the environment. … Some environments are toxic to health.”

“Giving a low-income woman the opportunity to move with her children to a less impoverished neighborhood appears to lower her risk of … two of the biggest health problems facing our country,” said Lindau, associate professor in obstetrics and gynecology, and an expert in urban health.

The study helps explain the increase in obesity and diabetes prevalence over time and the disparities across race and ethnic lines in the U.S.

“This study proves that concentrated poverty is not only bad policy, it’s bad for your health,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. “It’s not enough to simply move families into different neighborhoods. We must continue to look for innovative and strategic ways to connect families to the necessary supports they need to break the cycle of poverty that can quite literally make them sick.”

“These results highlight the great importance of learning more about what specific aspects of the social or physical environment reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity; for example, greater access to grocery stores, more opportunities for physical activity, or feelings of greater safety and reduced psychological stress,” said Ludwig.

“We are building on this work to try to understand the place and services in the urban environment that really matter for people’s health,” Lindau said.

[More coverage of this study can be found at CNN, USA Today, TIME, and WBEZ.]

(Photo: The Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, 1973. Taken from Wikimedia Commons)

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