Children who grow up in disadvantaged neighborhoods are nearly one-third more likely to experience obesity as adults, according to new research published in the journal Health & Place. The research, which offers a more precise and longer-term view than previously available of the lasting influence a neighborhood can have on unhealthy weight gain, shows the risk of obesity is strongest for teens.
The researchers defined “disadvantaged” neighborhoods based on seven variables, including median income and home values and the percentage of residents who were living in poverty, unemployed or had earned bachelor’s degrees. But measuring a neighborhood’s association with adult outcomes including obesity is complex. Researchers must consider “unobserved” factors not included in their data that might explain any association between childhood neighborhoods and obesity in adulthood. Genes, for example, or high parental stress level associated with household instability might be more responsible for children’s later weight gain.
The study accounted for these factors by comparing siblings. The siblings largely shared the same genes and parenting habits but may have experienced different neighborhood circumstances growing up, because their families moved or their neighborhoods changed over time between sibling births. The study also adjusted for criteria such as grandparents'’ experiences in segregated schools and neighborhoods, while exploring the link between growing up in tough neighborhoods and adult obesity.
The researchers found that among respondents followed in the data across different age ranges, that chance was 13% greater among children up to age 10 who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and 29% higher for kids aged 11–18. Overall, the odds rose 31%.
“We must continue to consider the context in which individuals are making decisions, the neighborhood resources that could serve as catalysts, or suppressors for any genetic predispositions toward obesity in adulthood,” said lead author Steven Alvarado, professor of sociology, Cornell University.