A new study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, (UCSF) has found less stress hormones in children with access to green spaces, clean air, and quality grocery stores. The finding shows that simply living in a more desirable neighborhood may act as a health booster for low-income children.
Researchers compared levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in 338 kindergartners from low-income families. They found that the average cortisol level, which is a biological marker of the body’s stress response, among 113 children from low-income families who lived in poor neighbourhoods reached the 75th percentile. However, 32 children from low-income families residing in better-quality neighborhoods fared better with average cortisol levels in the 45th percentile.
The findings of the study have been published in the international journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
High cortisol levels are associated with elevated blood sugar, raised blood pressure, back pain, bone thinning, obesity, insomnia, anxiety, and fatigue. In a statement, first author Danielle Roubinov has said that elevated levels of cortisol can place children at risk of poorer physical and mental health.
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The researchers also asked teachers and parents of the kindergartners, who were enrolled at six public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, to report on the children’s overall health and any impairments that may prevent them from participating in desired activities. They found that the 113 children living in poor neighborhoods were in the 75th percentile when it came to such health issues, while the 32 low-income children in better-resourced neighborhoods scored in the 55th percentile.
“The quality of neighborhoods was assessed by a measure that evaluates access to green spaces, exposure to environmental toxins, and availability of early childhood education centers and grocery stores selling healthy food,” said Roubinov, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF.
“Our study indicates that the quality of a neighborhood where a child grows up is one of several factors that can have a protective effect on their health.”
The work follows a 2011 government study in the United States that found improvements in health indicators of low-income adults after they were moved to wealthier neighborhoods as a result of a voucher housing initiative.
“Taken together, such results suggest that infusing a neighborhood with resources across various domains can offset the negative effects of a family’s economic status,” said Roubinov. “Initiatives such as supportive social services, efforts to improve neighborhood safety and housing quality, and redesigning parks and open spaces may offer physiological and physical benefits.”