Moving to a Better Neighborhood Can Be as Effective as Drugs in Preventing Obesity and Diabetes, Study Suggests

By Veronique Greenwood | October 25, 2011 2:19 pm


Researchers have long suspected that living in a bad neighborhood can be hazardous to your health—whether because of poor access to health care and a paucity of areas to exercise in and stores that sell healthy food, or some combination of other factors, living in a poor area means you have a disproportionate chance of becoming ill and obese. But how can you tell whether that effect is intrinsic to poverty, or whether it can be reversed if people move into more well-off neighborhoods? With a giant, long-term study that gives families in poor neighborhoods a chance to move to other areas.

The results of such a study, conducted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, have now been published, and they show that moving from low-income housing projects to a neighborhood with less than 10% of people living below the poverty line does have a positive effect on health. Measuring rates of obesity and of diabetes markers in the blood, they saw that people who had moved to low-poverty areas had significantly lower levels of both. “These are pretty big effects,” Jens Ludwig, the lead researcher, told ScienceNOW, “comparable in size to the long-term effects on diabetes we see from targeted lifestyle interventions or from providing people with medication that can prevent the onset of diabetes.” But why this is happening is still not clear, ScienceNOW reports:

The experiment clearly shows that the neighborhood effect is real, says Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston who studies the effect of social ties on health, but the mechanisms remain murky. Is it the shops and restaurants, the parks and pools, he wonders, “or the people in a neighborhood that affect you most?” For example, Christakis says, the people who moved might have lost weight because safer streets and open spaces “allowed them to walk outside more, or because they saw thinner people around them, or both.”

Image courtesy of JSmith Photo / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: diabetes, obesity, poverty
  • Bob

    Yeah that’s because todays manmade drugs are randomly assorted s***bags of chemicals used to make a profit at the cost of tons of side effects

  • John Lerch

    I hate to be a nay-sayer; but the article doesn’t say that the levels of negative markers DROPPED–what it says is: People who moved to better neighborhoods HAD LOWER levels. So did it start out low and stay low or did it drop?

  • floodmouse

    Improve the neighborhoods. You can’t evacuate all the people . . .

  • John Kwok

    @ John –

    An excellent point, which this study doesn’t address. If it could be shown statistically that the levels of negative markers had DROPPED once the subjects had moved from poorer to more affluent neighborhoods, then it would be reasonably to suggest that such a move did indeed improve the public health of these subjects.

  • fast jimmy


    That’s my house!

  • Broadside

    The natural and most likely primary explanation is that people who move to better neighborhoods are more responsible and inclined to self-improvement. Better housing in a better neighborhood are markers in an upward trajectory, with better diet and healthier habits to follow.

  • LP

    Here is little tidbit from the perspective of someone that has been there: Poverty means no car. Buses are expensive and some towns have no bus system at all to get to work, school, and etc. This means that grocery trips have to be short, and few in between. Because of that, food must have a long shelf life, to last until the next trip which could come in a few months. ( this means no veggies, no fresh foods, no milk or yogurt, and no fruit- basically anything fresh must be freezable, and not expensive to buy, which leaves out a lot of fresh food.) Long shelf life typically means inexpensive, nutrient deficient food. Try shopping on a budget of 100$ or less a month for two, and you will quickly find out how much food you can buy and what. Most poor people rent. Rent in some towns is as expensive as a mortgage on a moderate home. Most poor work physically demanding jobs that pay 9$ hour or less, without any health benefits or sick days. A few years of this and health problems do come up- and a typical clinic visit will run about $100. A lack of overall sleep due to work conditions and tons of overtime or extra jobs to pay bills will wreck havac on health too. With all the work (up to 80+ hours per week) means little energy or time for physical exercise. This is just a sampling mind you. Here it is in a nutshell: poor work conditions, overtime, little sleep, bad food, lack of healthcare, no exercise, and too much stress = obesity and bad health. Better health habits are costly, and simply something that a person living on 500- 800$ a month cannot afford. It isn’t the neighborhood or personal responsibility, trust me. A better diet and better habits follow a better income. And the people in this study were probably given a stipend for moving, paid no rent or utilities (or they wouldn’t have been able to move in the first place), and provided the means to better employment and a bigger paycheck in order to continue living there.

  • Jeff


    Agree completely. I would also like to add that your entire conclusion seems like a reasonably obvious deduction we should all be able to make without having a commensurate life experience… I mean, do we really need an elaborate study to tell us that being poor in America is hazardous to your health???

  • Steve

    @LP –

    Not to put *too* fine a point on it, but 80 hrs a week at minimum wage ( 80*7=560/week, *4= ~$2200/month ). And that’s if one doesn’t get paid overtime, a clear violation of FLRA regulations for most workers. Now 40hrs/week at minimum wage ( 40*7=~$1120 before taxes ) sounds more like your $500-$800 take-home. Most of the people I know in this sort of situation have only a minimum wage job and limited hours.

    None of this, of course, is intended to challenge Jeff’s observation, that being poor is bad for one’s health – the most significant portion of which is access to health care, with exercise next ( exercise makes more difference in one’s health and life expectancy than any single diet change – unless, I suppose, you’re morbidly obese).

  • Anon

    The blacks crawl in, the whites crawl out, the blacks play basketball on your snout.


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