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Nov 02, 2011

Obesity and Diabetes in Low-Income Neighborhoods

Where you live might impact your health more than you think.

Repeated observations show that low-income neighborhoods have higher rates of obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes in comparison with national averages. But what experts have long wondered is if this relationship is causal. In other words, does living in a low-income neighborhood cause poor health? Or do the people residing in these areas just happen to be less healthy?

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine helped answer this question by conducting one of the first randomized studies on obesity and diabetes in low-income neighborhoods. Between 1994 and 1998, researchers randomly assigned nearly 4,500 women with children living in public housing to one of three groups — the first group received counseling and vouchers for housing only in a low-poverty area (where less than 10% of the population was poor), the second received only vouchers for housing without any restrictions, and the third received neither counseling nor vouchers for housing. After tracking these groups through 2010, researchers found that families given counseling and vouchers for only low-poverty areas were significantly less likely to become obese or develop diabetes.

These findings show that disproportionate rates of obesity and diabetes in low-income neighborhoods may be a direct result of the neighborhoods themselves. And although the exact causes for this relationship are unclear, experts speculate that poorer health may be a result of many factors, such as limited access to healthy foods, exercise space, and healthcare. Ideally, with additional research on this issue, experts can identify the various causes for poor health in low-income neighborhoods and help improve the health of these high-risk populations.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How do experts define low-income?

  • Low-income areas are often defined as having a substantial portion of their population living below the poverty level. Although the poverty level can vary between states, the 2011 federal poverty level for individuals was $10,890 (except for Alaska and Hawaii).
  • Why do low-income neighborhoods have poorer health than the rest of the nation?

  • Although the causes of poorer health in low-income neighborhoods are unclear, it is likely that factors limiting exercise and healthy eating contribute to these outcomes, as well as increased stress and poor access to healthcare.