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Safe Neighborhoods Keep Kids Leaner

New research shows that families who live in unsafe areas have fatter kids

TUESDAY, Jan. 3 , 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The safety of a neighborhood appears to impact childhood obesity.

University of Michigan researchers using a national study found that kids who live in neighborhoods considered unsafe by their parents were more likely to be overweight than kids who live in what their parents considered to be safe neighborhoods.

This is probably because parents in unsafe areas are keeping their children inside, the researchers said. While that may decrease the chance of a child encountering a stray bullet or witnessing a drug deal, it increases sedentary behavior, which contributes to weight gain.

"We believe it may be because parents who perceive their neighborhoods as unsafe do not allow their children to play outside as much, and when children do not play outside as much, they do not get as much exercise," said study author Dr. Julie Lumeng, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of child behavioral health at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The study, which appears in the January issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, essentially confirms previous research in the area.

"We already know this, certainly, and we also know that poverty and obesity are very clearly linked," said Cathy Nonas, director of the diabetes and obesity programs at North General Hospital in New York City and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "These researchers are just looking at the issue again, and clarifying it and making it scientific."

The study also suggests the solutions to the burgeoning problem of childhood obesity go well beyond individual behaviors to include the daunting tasks of re-planning entire neighborhoods.

"At the moment, when we do an intervention we do a small intervention and when we're done, we pull out and it can't be sustained," Nonas said. "We have to look at this as a public health issue and people haven't been doing that."

Almost 16 percent of U.S. children aged 6 to 11 are overweight or obese. Certain segments of this age group are more likely to be heavy, including black and Hispanic children, children who watch a lot of television and children whose parents are heavy.

"Childhood obesity is a huge systemic problem. It's a pandemic to a certain extent," Nonas said.

More recent research has started to link conditions in communities to overweight and obesity.

For the latest findings, the researchers amassed data on 768 children and families who were participating in a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study on early child care and youth development. The families were located in 10 diverse regions of the United States.

Parents completed questionnaires indicating how safe they thought their neighborhoods were when their child was in first grade. The kids' height and weight were measured at 4.5 years and during first grade, when their average age was 7, which is when the prevalence of childhood overweight increases most rapidly.

In this sample, 17 percent of children living in the neighborhoods considered least safe by their parents were overweight, compared with 10 percent in the next safest category, 13 percent in the next and only 4 percent of those living in the safest sections.

The researchers noted in a prepared statement, "This relationship was not affected by any other variables . . . measured, including the education levels or marital status of the children's mothers, racial or ethnic backgrounds or participation in after-school activities."

The findings point up the very real possibility that neighborhood planning policies may be directly relevant to child health.

And, the researchers suggested, pediatricians should take note of the findings.

"Many areas of policy development related to the built environment and neighborhood safety have not traditionally been considered relevant to child health," they wrote. "However, such policies may have important implications for childhood overweight. For the individual physician, these results suggest the need to understand the character of a child's neighborhood when making recommendations for lifestyle and activity changes aimed at obesity prevention and treatment."

"If it were as easy as telling parents to have their children eat healthier and exercise more, I don't believe as many children would be overweight," added Lumeng. "We need to think together about the multitude of factors that increase a child's risk of overweight, and then target them one by one... The complexity of all of these issues speaks to the complexity of addressing the obesity epidemic."

More information

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has done research on obesity in children, including how unsafe parks may contribute to the problem.

SOURCES: Julie Lumeng, M.D., assistant professor, pediatrics, division of child behavioral health, C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Cathy Nonas, M.S., R.D., director, diabetes and obesity programs, North General Hospital, New York City, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association and author, Outwit Your Weight; January 2006 Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine
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