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Study Links Childhood Obesity to Socioeconomic Status

A study of children living in King County, Washington, found that those who live in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to be obese, and that these areas present many obstacles to maintaining a healthy weight.

Children in King County, Washington, are more likely to be obese if they live in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, according to a study published in Social Science & Medicine.

The team of researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the University of Washington, and Group Health Research Institute, found obesity to be most common in children living in neighborhoods with the least-educated females, most single-parent households, lowest median household income, highest proportion of non-white residents, and fewest homes owned. These five socioeconomic factors combined accounted for 24% of the variability in childhood obesity rates across neighborhoods.

The study found that disadvantaged neighborhoods may present many obstacles to maintaining a healthy weight, including less access to healthy foods, more fast-food outlets, and a lack of safe places for children to play outdoors.

“Childhood obesity is not just a family problem, but a larger community and societal problem,” said lead author H. Mollie Greves Grow, MD, MPH, of Seattle Children’s and assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Harborview Medical Center. “A disadvantaged environment can set families up for ill health. We don’t yet know all of the factors that may create disadvantage, but we know it is present and associated with higher obesity.”

The research team collected anonymous electronic medical record information on 8,616 children age 6-18 receiving care at Group Health Cooperative, and then correlated the data to the social and economic characteristics of Seattle-area census tracts. They found that the likelihood of childhood obesity rose by 17-24% for each of three measures of neighborhood social disadvantage: each 10% decrease in female education and two-parent households, and each $10,000 decline in household income. Effects related to race and homeownership were smaller but still statistically significant.

Overall, King County’s demographics resemble those of other urban U.S. areas. “But King County has one of the strongest public health efforts, a relatively walkable environment, and efforts to expand affordable access to healthy, fresh foods,” said Dr. Grow. So she and her colleagues expect the links between childhood obesity and neighborhood disadvantage may be even more pronounced elsewhere.