Close-Knit Neighborhoods May Help Prevent Children from Becoming Overweight

For Release

February 9, 2006

Adolescents living in close-knit neighborhoods where adults provide social support — such as watching out for youngsters and seeking to correct their misbehavior — are just half as likely to be overweight or nearly overweight as other children, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

“There is an obesity epidemic in this country and treatment has focused on diet and exercise with relatively little success,” said Dr. Deborah Cohen, a RAND Health researcher and lead author of the study. “These findings suggest that providing more social support to children at the neighborhood level, which was more common in the past, is a potentially successful strategy for reducing the incidence of obesity in young people in the future.”

The RAND study analyzed responses collected from about 3,000 households participating in the Los Angeles Family and Neighborhoods Survey (LAFANS), conducted in 2000 and 2001.

Researchers identified neighborhoods with the highest level of social support as those in which an above-average number of people surveyed said their neighborhood had the following characteristics: a close-knit community; adults who children look up to; people willing to help neighbors; neighbors who get along; adults who watch out to see that children are safe; neighbors who share the same values; adults who will take action if they see a child hanging out; adults who will do something if a youngster is defacing property with graffiti; and people who will scold a child showing disrespect.

Expanding understanding about how a neighborhood's social cohesion and social controls can influence obesity among young people may help researchers find ways to address the problem, Cohen said.

Neighborhoods with high levels of social support have been found to play a role in health problems related to obesity among adults, including premature death and cardiovascular disease. The new RAND study, published in the February edition of the journal Social Science & Medicine, takes the premise a step further and examines the role that a neighborhood may have on adolescents' weight.

Cohen and her colleagues examined information from 807 adolescents who lived in 65 different neighborhoods across Los Angeles. Overall, researchers found that 16 percent of the children in their study were overweight and 35 percent were heavy enough to put them at risk for being overweight.

Researchers say that other factors also influence children's weight, including their age, hours of television viewing per week and their mother's weight. There also may be additional factors that affect children's weight, such as access to parks and playgrounds and whether they live in safe neighborhoods that allow them to play outside.

In addition to lower rates of overweight, children who live in neighborhoods with higher levels of social support also tend to have a lower body mass index (a ratio of weight to height). Children in neighborhoods where there is a lower level of social support had roughly a two-point increase in BMI.

Researchers point out that advancing technologies appear to play a role in keeping people physically isolated from each other. New approaches to weight control might focus on fostering increased social interactions and more satisfying interpersonal relationships, which may substitute for overeating.

This analysis was funded in part by the Health Services and Research Administration's Maternal and Child Health research program, housed within the Department of Health and Human Service. Other authors were Aimee Bower and Narayan Sastry of RAND, and Brian K. Finch of San Diego State University.

RAND Health is the nation's largest independent health policy research program, with a broad research portfolio that focuses on health care quality, costs and delivery, among other topics.

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