Neighborhood safety may play role in obesity

Mothers of young children are more likely to be obese when they perceive their neighborhoods as unsafe, according to a new study in the journal Obesity.

Researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Mathematica Policy Research and the University of Pennsylvania analyzed perceived neighborhood safety and obesity in women with young children. Connection with one's neighbors, characterized as neighborhood cohesion, did not have a significant relation to the mother's obesity.

"The characteristics of neighborhoods can influence how and where people spend their time, and unsafe neighborhoods are often thought to contribute to the obesity epidemic by decreasing outdoor activity," said study leader Hillary Burdette, M.D., a pediatrician at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Despite a hypothesized link between neighborhood safety and obesity, this was the first study to evaluate this association among adults."

Using data collected in 20 large U.S. cities in 15 states for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, researchers focused on 2400 women with preschool children and found that mothers who perceived their neighborhoods to be safer had a lower body mass index (BMI) and were less likely to be obese, even after accounting for multiple measures of socioeconomic status. The percentage of mothers who were obese increased from 37 percent in the safest neighborhoods to 46 percent in the least safe neighborhoods.

The women were more likely to be obese if they were less educated, unmarried, had lower income, had a depressive episode in the prior year, or were Hispanic or non-Hispanic black. Women who were more educated, married, non-Hispanic white, older, and had higher income were more likely to perceive their neighborhoods as being safer and having more social cohesion.

This is the first study of its kind, say the researchers, to find an association between perceived neighborhood safety and BMI. However, the researchers say that further research is needed, as it cannot necessarily be assumed that low levels of neighborhood safety cause obesity.


The National Institutes of Health funded the study. Dr. Burdette's co-authors were Robert C. Whitaker, of Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., of Princeton, N.J. and Thomas A. Wadden, department of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia was founded in 1855 as the nation's first pediatric hospital. Through its long-standing commitment to providing exceptional patient care, training new generations of pediatric healthcare professionals and pioneering major research initiatives, Children's Hospital has fostered many discoveries that have benefited children worldwide. Its pediatric research program is among the largest in the country, ranking second in National Institutes of Health funding. In addition, its unique family-centered care and public service programs have brought the 430-bed hospital recognition as a leading advocate for children and adolescents. For more information, visit

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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