Children who grow up in disadvantaged neighborhoods are nearly one-third more likely to experience obesity as adults with the risk strongest for teens.
The new research from Cornell University offers a more precise and longer-term view than previously available of the lasting influence a neighborhood can have on unhealthy weight gain.
Obesity risk rose overall by 31% across all age groups, but that chance was 13% greater among children up to age 10 who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and 29% higher for children aged 11 to 18 years.
Lead author Steven Alvarado, Professor of Sociology, said: "Growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood sticks with you, and can have a negative impact on one's health through increasing one's chance of obesity in adulthood."
The researchers defined "disadvantaged" neighborhoods based on seven variables, including median income and home values and the percentage of residents who were living in poverty, unemployed or had earned bachelor's degrees.
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They acknowledged that "unobserved" factors not included in their data that might explain any association between childhood neighborhoods and obesity in adulthood. Genes, for example, or high parental stress level associated with household instability might be more responsible for children's later weight gain.
The study accounted for these factors by comparing siblings. The siblings largely shared the same genes and parenting habits but may have experienced different neighborhood circumstances growing up, because their families moved or their neighborhoods changed over time between sibling births.
Link between tough neighborhoods and adult obesity
Alvarado's study is the first to adjust for criteria such as grandparents' experiences in segregated schools and neighborhoods, while exploring the link between growing up in tough neighborhoods and adult obesity.
"We must continue to consider the context in which individuals are making decisions, the neighborhood resources that could serve as catalysts or suppressors for any genetic predispositions toward obesity in adulthood," he said.