Unsafe urban neighborhoods linked to teen weight

Living in an urban neighborhood that feels unsafe may be a factor in a teen’s risk for being overweight, hints a study of public high school students in Boston, Massachusetts.

Of the 1,140 students surveyed, nearly 12 percent said they rarely felt safe in their neighborhood and 9 percent said they never felt safe in their neighborhood.

These students were about 1.2-times more likely to be overweight or at risk for becoming overweight compared with students who said they sometimes or always felt safe (44 percent) or always felt safe (36 percent), researchers report in the online journal Public Health, published by BioMed Central.

The risk for being overweight was in excess of 1.5 times among students who listed their race as “other” - Asian, South Asian, American Indian, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders - and said they never or rarely felt safe.

That adolescents feel unsafe in their neighborhoods “is concerning on its own,” Dustin T. Duncan, a doctoral candidate at Harvard School of Public Health, noted in an email to Reuters Health. That neighborhood safety may be a factor in overweight among teens is doubly concerning, he added.

Duncan’s team analyzed health behaviors, use of school and community resources, and exposure to violence reported in the 2006 Boston Youth Survey. This representative sampling of students in grades 9 through 12 included non-Hispanic Blacks (47 percent) and Hispanics (30 percent). Non-Hispanic Whites and “Other” races comprised 13 and 11 percent.

Overall, half the Hispanic students were at risk for being overweight, as were 46, 39, and 34 percent of students who were Black, White, and Other race or ethnicity. Male and female (58 percent) students had similar risk for being overweight.

The researchers report a greater proportion (68 percent) of the students who rarely or never felt safe said gang violence was a serious neighborhood problem. Nearly 18 percent of these teens had witnessed assaults in the previous year.

By contrast, of those who said they sometimes or always felt safe, 44 and 11 percent, respectively, cited gang violence as a problem and had witnessed assaults.

Duncan’s group, therefore, suggests policies and programs to address gang activity and violence may also help prevent urban-living teens from becoming overweight.

SOURCE: BMC Public Health, August 2009

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