The Neighborhood: A Link to Teen Obesity?

September 2, 2012
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When it comes to adolescent obesity, Assistant Professor of Sociology Antwan Jones thinks neighborhoods may be one of many factors in its root cause. Armed with a two-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Jones is studying characteristics of neighborhoods, such as proximity to fast food restaurants and open spaces, to determine if they elevate the risk of obesity.  He’s also examining whether the act of moving to a new neighborhood, which may break long-established networks of friends, also adds to the risk.

“The stress of moving and the loss of community connectedness work in tandem to discourage adolescents from familiarizing themselves to the neighborhood amenities that exist in their new areas,” explained Jones. “Thus, they may be less likely to engage in exercise at nearby parks or [they may] rely on convenient, but unhealthy, foods at chain restaurants or neighborhood stores.”

A social demographer and urban sociologist, Jones is interested in how socio-environmental factors affect children’s health and well-being. As part of his research, he is doing secondary analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample of children from across the United States. He is looking at low-income environments where there is an abundance of fast food advertising and eateries and a dearth of grocery stores and healthy eating options.

“In addition, these areas lack structurally sound playgrounds or recreational facilities and also have poor access to neighboring facilities because of inconvenient, inconsistent, limited, or no public transportation systems,” said Jones. “The combination of residing in unsafe and hazardous neighborhoods and having few to no opportunities to play, exercise, shop, and eat within those neighborhoods makes these areas particularly unhealthy places to live.”

He theorizes that physical and psychological effects from a move, or “residential instability,” could also help explain why obesity levels have tripled in the past 30 years. His analysis is ongoing, but preliminary findings showed that 78 percent of adolescents studied experienced some kind of residential instability.

“A key component to lowering obesity risks for families who may have experienced residential movement is increasing familiarity and knowledge of the neighborhood,” said Jones. “My research will point to low-cost interventions, such as neighborhood orientations for adolescents and their families that might make costly policy initiatives around improving the built environment more effective.”

“As a result,” he added, “the health of adolescents can be improved as they transition into adulthood.”