December 10, 2023

Living in more walkable neighborhoods can lower the rate of obesity-related cancers in women, a new study has found.

Living in a densely populated neighborhood with accessible amenities such as grocery stores and small businesses promotes walking, and women living in more walkable neighborhoods had a lower risk of at least five types of cancer, including postmenopausal breast, ovarian, pancreatic and colorectal cancers, as well as multiple myeloma.

“Urban planning is related to the health of individuals,” said Sandra India-Aldana, the report’s lead author and a researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York. “Improving built environments can promote healthy habits that protect people from obesity-related disease.”

The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives on Wednesday, found that women who lived in more walkable neighborhoods – measured by population density and access to key destinations – were up to 26% less likely to develop obesity-related cancers.

Several studies have shown that increased physical activity can lower the risk of some cancers. US health officials recommend adults engage in at least two and a half hours of “moderate-intensity” physical activity such as “brisk” walking each week. Only about 19% of women and 26% of men meet that threshold, according to government figures, and women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with obesity-related cancers.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine studied more than 14,000 women between the ages of 34 and 65 from 1985 to 2016.

“This is the first study that utilizes data over an average of 24 years of walkability to associate risk of incidents of obesity-related cancer,” said co-author Yu Chen, an epidemiologist at New York University. (Though the data was collected over 31 years, subjects were tracked an average of 24 years.) “We showed that neighborhood walkability is related to risk of obesity-related cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer specifically, in women over a long period of time.”

The study, which assessed neighborhood-level poverty, did not collect information on participants’ income level, and about 78.5% of participants were white – a much higher percentage than in the city as a whole. Researchers attributed the demographics to the population the mammography center served at the time of recruitment.

Walkable neighborhoods appeared to be especially beneficial to women in low-income areas, correlating with a 19% reduction of risk among residents of poorer neighborhoods, compared with a 6% reduction in wealthier communities.

Separate studies have shown that poorer, non-white neighborhoods tend to be less conducive to walking than wealthier, whiter ones.

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Roshanak Mehdipanah, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study, said its focus on how the built environment affects women was important.

“Historically, most cities were really planned by a very exclusive group of folks, which tended to be more white and more male,” she said. “When you do invest in more walkable environments, it’s not just creating sidewalks, but it’s also improving security and safety measures.”

The Federal Highway Act of 1956 spurred development of 41,000 miles (66,000km) of a highway system that reshaped the US. These projects bulldozed communities of color, making way for car-centric cities that affected air quality, divided neighborhoods, demolished homes, restricted public transport and depreciated housing value.

“The highways were strategically placed to run through neighborhoods of predominantly Black and brown people,” Mehdipanah said. “Focusing on people and not on cars, and investing in not only walkability, but also in the wellbeing, safety and security of people without marginalizing them further, is key.”

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