Safe, Walkable Neighborhoods Enhance Mental Health in Older Latinos

Older Latinos living in the U.S. who feel that their neighborhoods are safe and walkable exhibit fewer symptoms of depression, and the effect may be long-term, according to a new study by the University of Illinois.

“Many times we look at individual-level factors or things within the individual’s family that contribute to mental health, but here we’re seeing it’s beyond that — it’s the neighborhood and other macro-systems that can impact psychological well-being,” said Rosalba Hernandez, Ph.D., a professor of social work at the university.

“If there are neighborhood factors that decrease depressive symptoms, how do we figure out what those factors are and make appropriate investments, so we can have individuals who are psychologically well and environments that are flourishing?”

For the study, researchers investigated the links between the onset of depressive symptoms in 570 older Latino adults (aged 60 to 90) and various traits of the Greater Los Angeles neighborhoods in which they lived, including crime, the availability and quality of sidewalks, traffic safety, and aesthetics.

Of the participants, 351 screened positive for low levels of depression at the beginning of the study. When participants were rescreened 12 and 24 months later, a total of 19 (5.4 percent) of those with depression showed an increase in symptoms.

“Older adults may be especially sensitive to neighborhood climate issues because their limited mobility and physical frailty increases feelings of vulnerability to negative forces in their environments,” Hernandez said.

Research has shown that older Latino adults in the U.S. are at greater risk for depression and that cultural barriers prevent many of them from seeking mental health care. 

They are also more likely to live in neighborhoods with high crime rates and unsafe parks, preventing them from venturing outdoors and walking to nearby social activities that would benefit their mental health.

“Latinos are going to be the largest ethnic minority very soon, and the aging population in the U.S. is growing as well,” Hernandez said. “If we can potentially intervene before all these comorbidities and chronic illnesses converge, we can avert a potential health care crisis.”

“We know that depression linked with any kind of chronic illness will just make more issues arise, so how can we target a group that is growing and has many challenges in terms of acculturation, language, socioeconomic status, and the stigmas associated with depressive symptoms?” Hernandez said.

All of the study participants lived in the Greater Los Angeles area and were part of the group “¡Caminemos!,” a two-year research trial that promoted exercise and taught participants that being sedentary was not a natural part of aging.

“Addressing safety concerns within local neighborhoods could enhance the psychological well-being and quality of life of elderly residents. And providing these interventions at the neighborhood and local government levels may be more cost-effective than individual-level therapies,” Hernandez said.

Source: University of Illinois