Researchers find connection between perceived neighborhood safety and mortality

Wednesday, November 2, 2016 - 2:33pm

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The way an individual perceives his or her neighborhood safety and quality is predictive of their mortality, according to a new study by Shervin Assari, psychiatric research investigator in the School of Public Health. This predictivity, however, differs between Black and white people.

The study, soon to be published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, used data from the Americans’ Changing Lives Study, a nationally representative study which interviewed 3,361 white and Black adults 25 years of age and older in the United States. Using this dataset, Assari assessed the different ways in which safety and quality are measured to analyze self-reported evaluations from study participants about their neighborhood.

Assari has done similar research in the past regarding the way environmental effects contribute to premature death and mortality impacts white and Black people differently.

In this study, Assari ultimately found that while negative perceptions of both neighborhood safety and quality predict mortality, these factors are better predictive of mortality for white people than Black people.

Similar research has been conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that social, physical and economic characteristics of neighborhoods are increasingly recognized as having short- and long-term consequences for residents' lifespan.

Assari noted that there are social factors contributing to Black resilience in poorer conditions, such as a history of oppression. 

As an example, he cited Flint, noting that traditionally, the poorer areas of the city were occupied by low-income Black people, more and more white people have been moving into the area in recent years. Assari connected this to his findings, saying poor neighborhood quality would have more negative effects on the newer, white residents. This is in part due to traditional community support systems Black people tend to have that reduce their neighborhood’s effects.

“In the community there are sources of support from community members, from religion, from connection to God which are known to be stronger for Blacks,” Assari said.

Assari also noted that an individual’s comparison with social networks can also influence his or her perceptions of a neighborhood environment, saying it should be considered in crafting policy aimed at improving neighborhood safety and quality.

“There might be certain populations that are more vulnerable to the same exposure,” Assari said. “So policies which do not consider these group differences may fail to reduce health disparities because, if you just universally promote safety and just ignore that safety is going to have differential effects for different groups, you would not be able to predict what (these policies are) going to do.

Roshanak Mehdipanah, an assistant professor of health behavior and health education, was not directly involved in the study, but highlighted Assari’s findings in terms of her research, which primarily focuses on urban health equity.

Mehdipanah said both one’s physical environment — including infrastructure, housing, public transportation and physical access to healthy food sources — and social factors — such as access to clinics, employment programs or employment rates, education opportunities and demographics — all contribute to one’s perception of their neighborhood’s safety and quality.

She noted that in many poorer neighborhoods, there is a lack of investment that leads to physical neighborhood issues around safety, lack of resources and higher vacancy, all of which then contribute to social factors.

“Because there’s this disinvestment, resources begin dropping out too, so you don’t have as many outlets — for example, for employment opportunities — and so it’s this cycle of one contributing to the other in creating those inequalities between these types of neighborhoods,” Mehdipanah said.