Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Could your neighbourhood be bad for your health?

The neighbourhood we live in can influence our health, wellbeing and even whether we vape or smoke, according to new University of Canterbury research.

A nationwide study led by University of Canterbury Public Health Senior Lecturer, Dr Matt Hobbs, shows that living in areas that have ‘health constraining’ features, such as fast-food outlets, dairies and liquor stores, is associated with poorer physical and mental health outcomes for residents.

It is also linked to higher rates of vaping and tobacco smoking. However, neighbourhoods with parks, supermarkets, fruit and vegetable shops and gyms, classed as ‘health promoting’ environmental features, are linked to better physical health for their residents.

University of Canterbury Public Health Senior Lecturer, Dr Matt Hobbs.

Dr Hobbs says the new geospatial study, recently published in Social Science and Medicine, is an extension of his previous research showing that characteristics of the nearby environment influence mental health.

“The results of our latest study show that where Kiwi adults live has an impact on their physical and mental health and their behaviour. It’s also one of the first to show that the environment makes a difference to chances of vaping and smoking,” he said.

“We found that people who live in areas close to things like alcohol outlets, gambling venues, dairies and fast food shops were more likely to have type 2 diabetes, a higher body mass index (BMI) and be smokers or vapers. They also had higher levels of anxiety, depression and psychological distress. 

“People living in areas with green spaces, physical activity venues and supermarkets, were more likely to have better physical health, with lower BMI and lower rates of type 2 diabetes.”

Dr Hobbs says the results confirm previous findings but now also show a clear link between living environments and physical and mental health. He believes they should help inform city planning policy and decision-making.

“Clearly, this should not happen based on this study alone, but there’s a wealth of evidence that shows the local environment is related to both your physical and mental health.”

“We need a new overarching strategy and legislation from the Government to support planning rules that promote better societal health in our towns and cities and reduce health inequities.

“This is particularly important with the growing prevalence of physical and mental health problems in Aotearoa New Zealand. In addition, things like fast food outlets and liquor stores are more often located in deprived areas.

“I think our city planners can work together with public health to start thinking more about creating healthy neighbourhoods. This is already happening in the United Kingdom where there is some local regulation limiting the number of fast food outlets or liquor stores you can have in an area, for instance.”

Dr Hobbs and his team used a newly developed Healthy Location Index (LHI) to identify and map health promoting and health-constraining features in neighbourhoods around the country. This environmental data was related to self-reported health behaviours, such as smoking tobacco and vaping, mental health outcomes including depression, anxiety and psychological distress and physical health outcomes, using a nationally representative survey of adults living across the different regions in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey.

Dr Hobbs is a Director of the GeoHealth Laboratory at the University of Canterbury which carries out applied research in medical and health geography.

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