Where you live can literally shape your body

March 19, 2014 by Jan Overney
Where you live can literally shape your body
Credit: Thinkstockphotos.com 2014

Whether you live downtown or in the suburbs could have a surprising effect on your bodyweight and your health, with roots running deeper than income differences, says a recent study carried out on data gathered in the canton of Geneva.

Instead of going on a diet, why not leave the suburbs and move downtown to drop some weight? In reality, it might not be quite that simple, but a recent study by researchers from the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) and EPFL has shown that, for adults, place of residence has an impact on body-mass-index, an indicator used to classify people's weight, that goes beyond income levels. Their findings rely on data gathered over 10 years in the canton of Geneva and were published in the journal Nature Nutrition and Diabetes. They highlight the need for a fine-grained assessment of public and provide insights that could help guide campaigns to prevent obesity.

Public health specialists long ago connected the dots between people's socioeconomic context and social networks on their health and obesity rates. In particular, body-mass-index (BMI) – a measure that describes body shape based on height and weight – has been believed to reflect the income and the average BMI of their social circles. As a result, obesity prevention campaigns have typically targeted large swaths of the population in low-income neighborhoods. But the data gathered from thousands of adults and children living in Geneva beg for a subtler interpretation.

Red dots represent adults with a high BMI that are surrounded by adults with similarly high BMI values (high-high). Blue dots represent the opposite situation (low-low). White dots mean that neither trend is detected. Purple and pink dots represent low-high and high-low respectively. Credit: Nature, 2014.

Health data for more than 6600 adults, including measured height and weight, were collected from 2001 to 2010 as part of the Bus Santé population-based study, initiated and carried out by Idris Guessous of the Geneva University Hospitals. The campaign included several units including a mobile examination unit that went to several places in the State to evaluate the health of the canton's residents. The dataset was rounded off with health evaluations of more than 3600 children, obtained in schools across the canton in 2011.

Evaluating these data geographically confirmed that adults' and children's BMI values are not distributed randomly on a map of the canton. Instead, they were found to divide the map into regions with predominantly high or low values, and a larger one where neither trend prevailed. To the south of the Rhone River, the researchers detected a region characterized by low BMI values. North or the Rhone, and to the west of the Praille district, values of high BMI were overrepresented. Between the two, the researchers detected a large "neutral" belt, with a mixed population.

The study revealed two surprising features. First, high adult BMI values did not always overlap with those for children, especially in the heart of the city, north of the Rhone River. And second, at least for adults, the researchers found that differences in income were not enough to explain their findings. But according to the researchers, there are a number other of potential causes, including urban planning, social networks, sport infrastructure, and the promotion of softer forms of mobility, such as walking, biking, or public transportation. In the future, the researchers from EPFL's Laboratory of Geographical Information Systems, who performed the spatial analysis of the results, will seek to tease out the effect of each of these and other factors on BMI.

The study brings to light the importance of finer-grained analysis of community health, both in terms of to geography and age. Lessons learned will primarily benefit other communities seeking to more accurately analyze the health of their residents. But they will also help those involved in setting up anti-obesity campaigns, allowing them to more accurately tailor adult or child specific interventions to the target audience they aim to reach.

Explore further: New evidence shows increase in obesity may be slowing, but not by much

Related Stories

New evidence shows increase in obesity may be slowing, but not by much

February 5, 2014
In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama referred to an August 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that showed a decline in the obesity rate among low-income pre-school children, saying, ...

Obesity prevalence remains high in US; no significant change in recent years

February 25, 2014
The prevalence of obesity remains high in the U.S., with about one-third of adults and 17 percent of children and teens obese in 2011-2012, according to a national survey study in the February 26 issue of JAMA.

Child obesity interventions: Is change in BMI a good measure of success?

August 12, 2013
Body mass index (BMI) or a change in BMI is often the sole measure used to evaluate whether an intervention intended to combat childhood obesity is effective. But a new study clearly shows that an intervention can have beneficial ...

Kindergarten weight strong indicator of childhood obesity

January 29, 2014
A recent study by researchers from Emory's Rollins School of Public Health suggests that development of new childhood obesity cases, or incidence, is largely established by kindergarten. The study showed that overweight kindergarteners ...

Increased adiposity and reduced physical activity in children: Cause or effect?

March 18, 2014
Increased adiposity is likely to cause reduced physical activity in children, according to research published in this week's PLOS Medicine. The results of the study, conducted by Rebecca Richmond and colleagues from the MRC ...

More education, not income, fights obesity

September 13, 2013
Educational status may protect women living in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas against obesity, finds a new study in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Recommended for you

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

July 19, 2017
Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, Auckland researchers have found.

High-dose vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles for children

July 18, 2017
Giving children high doses of vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles, a new study has found.


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.