The impact that neighbourhoods may have on health

A study carried out by scientists from the LIFEPATH project showed that living in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas may lead to obesity, hypertension and diabetes. The authors of the research, published on The Lancet, reached this conclusion after gathering and analysing social, economic and biological data from more than 3,000 Finnish over 30 years.

The notion that residential neighbourhoods shape human wellbeing is a cornerstone of public health: those living in more disadvantaged areas have higher probability to experience worse health outcomes than do those living in more affluent areas, independently of individual socioeconomic standing. LIFEPATH is a project funded by the European Commission that investigates the biological pathways underlying social differences in healthy ageing. Its researchers aimed to examine whether risk factors – like dietary habits or daily smoking – in childhood and adulthood varied between people with high and low neighbourhood socioeconomic disadvantage, and at which life stage such differences emerged. 

Their long-term approach allowed them to find large changes in risk factors among individuals over the course of three decades. Neighbourhood socioeconomic conditions were estimated based on the proportion of adults with primary education only, unemployment rate, and the proportion of people living in rented housing; all those data were obtained from a national database.

People living in high neighbourhood socioeconomic disadvantage were characterised by an unhealthier diet at baseline, lower physical activity, and greater prevalence of daily smoking from adolescence onwards. Also, by the end of the follow-up period, when participants were aged 33–48 years, those who have been exposed consistently to these unfavourable conditions from childhood to adulthood were more likely to suffer from obesity and hypertension in middle age, and their relative risk of diabetes was almost four times higher compared to those living in different and less disadvantaged areas.

«Our study suggests that neighbourhood socioeconomic disadvantage is a powerful predictor of diabetes that has an effect across the life course through the modified lifestyles and accelerated development of cardiometabolic risk factors, such as obesity, hypertension, and a fatty liver», commented Mika Kivimaki, professor of social epidemiology at the University College of London and leading author of the study. «These findings highlight the importance of policies that improve resources and opportunities for those living in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas».

Publication date: 
Monday, July 30, 2018