Neighborhoods can have depressing effect on health, study

October 1, 2010, Iowa State University
Daniel Russell, a professor of human development and family studies; and Carolyn Cutrona, professor and chair of psychology, husband and wife, have been collecting data from the Family and Community Health Study -- an ongoing study of 800 African American families that started in 1997. Half of the study's sample lives in Iowa and the researchers have been tracking those families on a large map. Photo by Bob Elbert, ISU News Service

(PhysOrg.com) -- The nation's poverty rate climbed to 14.3 percent -- the highest level since 1994 -- according to the Census Bureau's annual report on the economic well-being of U.S. households. That means one in seven Americans now live in poverty, and that may have an especially depressing effect on people living in bad neighborhoods, according to two Iowa State University researchers.

Daniel Russell, an Iowa State professor of human development and family studies; and Carolyn Cutrona, professor and chair of psychology, presented "Stressful Effects of Where You Live: Studying the Influence of Neighborhood Context Over Time," in August at the World Conference on Stress and Anxiety Research in Galway, Ireland. Their presentation summarized data taken from the Family and Community Health Study (FACHS), an ongoing ISU study of 800 African American families -- approximately half living in Iowa and half in Georgia -- that started in 1997.

Russell and Cutrona reported that negative neighborhood infrastructure can keep neighbors from forming . And it's the absence of those social ties that have a small but significant impact on an individual's mental health.

"If you're living in where there's a lot of crime, gang activities and so forth, you see weaker social ties," said Russell, a noted researcher. "One of the things we tried to assess was essentially community support -- to what extent people in that neighborhood turned to others for child care, other forms of assistance -- and whether they socialize and know each other. And it's clear that in these negative neighborhoods there's this inverse relationship in terms of their various problems and lack of strong ties."

The compounding effect of bad neighborhoods

In neighborhoods where social disorder -- or a lack of social ties -- was perceived to be high, the effects on the subjects' perceived personal risk were amplified. The effects of personal risk were muted in neighborhoods with low social disorder.

"The effects of things going wrong in your own life are magnified when you live in one of these negative neighborhoods," said Cutrona, who presented related research this month to staff members for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. "So it affects all of us to have a sick family member, or lose our job, or to be robbed. But when that happens to someone in these neighborhoods, it increases the probability that the person will be diagnosed with a major depressive disorder over the next two years. Yet if the same event happened and you were in a more benign neighborhood, your chances of becoming clinically depressed were less."

Sixty-two percent of the study's participants subsequently moved to different neighborhoods between 1997 and 2005, with the rate of moving from specific neighborhoods ranging from 22 to 90 percent. "Neighborhood cohesion" was identified by subjects as the most desirable characteristic of their new neighborhoods. And people who lived in cohesive neighborhoods were much less likely to move away.

But the ISU researchers found that the lack of racism was the only factor that significantly improved depression among the African American subjects after they moved.

"If the new neighborhood was less racist overall -- not just their perception, but the perception of multiple people who lived in that neighborhood -- then the subjects' moods improved following that move," Cutrona said. "So it was not about moving to a wealthier neighborhood, or even a safer neighborhood, but moving to a less racist neighborhood that impacted depression levels."

Not only representing low income families

The researchers emphasize that the study's sample does not solely reflect perceptions of low income families. Only about 20 percent of the families surveyed were below the poverty line and the sample included a wide range of family incomes, including some families that earned more than $200,000 per year.

"When we started the study, the average income of this study matched the average income of Iowans," Russell said.

But both Cutrona and Russell agree that it is the low-income subjects living in negative neighborhoods who are most vulnerable to prolonged depression.

"If you have to live in one of these neighborhoods, you may not have the resources for health insurance and good mental health care," Cutrona said. "And you may not have the support around you to say, 'This is depression and it's treatable.'"

Russell reports he and Cutrona have received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to collaborate with researchers at the University of Iowa and the University of Georgia to study the role of genetic factors and neighborhood environments on depression in the FACHS sample.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Calcium and Vitamin D supplements are not associated with risk of heart attacks

February 16, 2018
New research from the University of Southampton has found no association between the use of calcium or vitamin D supplementation and cardiovascular events such as heart attacks.

Women who clean at home or work face increased lung function decline

February 16, 2018
Women who work as cleaners or regularly use cleaning sprays or other cleaning products at home appear to experience a greater decline in lung function over time than women who do not clean, according to new research published ...

Study shows options to decrease risk of motor vehicle crashes for adolescent drivers

February 16, 2018
Adolescents who receive comprehensive and challenging on-road driving assessments prior to taking the license test might be protected from future motor vehicle crashes, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham study ...

Being a single dad can shorten your life: study

February 15, 2018
The risk of dying prematurely more than doubles for single fathers compared to single mothers or paired-up dads, according to a study of Canadian families published Thursday.

Keeping an eye on the entire ageing process

February 15, 2018
Medical researchers often only focus on a single disease. As older people often suffer from multiple diseases at the same time, however, we need to rethink this approach, writes Ralph Müller.

Study suggests possible link between highly processed foods and cancer

February 14, 2018
A study published by The BMJ today reports a possible association between intake of highly processed ("ultra-processed") food in the diet and cancer.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.