Analysis of Incidence of Childhood Obesity by Neighborhood Provides Base for Local Policies

Author: Jake Cowan and Tom Kingsley
Date Posted: August 29, 2011

In 2002, the Polis Center at Indiana-Purdue University, in conjunction with the Children’s Health Services Research Program in the Department of Pediatrics at Indiana University, began a study of relationship between neighborhood conditions and risk of childhood obesity. In the past two decades, the prevalence of obesity has risen dramatically. Concern about this rise centers on the link between obesity and increased health risks that translate into substantially increased medical care and disability costs.

The Polis Center had access to a database for this work that is nationally known for its comprehensiveness:  the Regenstrief Medical Records System (RMRS) which contains data on patient circumstances and care reported by a large number of care providers and other health entities in Indiana (with data on 1.5 million patients since 1974). From this source, the researchers obtained data on a random sample of children, ages 14-18, that had been seen by primary care clinics in the Indiana University Medical Group in Marion County from 1996 through 2000 and for whom simultaneous height and weight measurements were available.  They classified all children in the database according to body mass index (BMI) categories.

Data were analyzed at the block-group level. Block group characteristics included income and other socioeconomic variables from the 2000 census and information on physical activity opportunities (e.g., YMCAs, parks, after-school physical education programs) and crime rates from the neighborhood data system maintained by the Polis Center.

Their multivariate analysis confirmed that children living in neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic status (as measured by income and educational attainment) are more likely to be obese. Children from areas with very low median income were 1.55 times more likely to be obese than those from higher income areas. Polis also prepared neighborhood maps, later widely publicized, that showed the incidence of obesity explicitly.

This research served as a primary input for a local collaborative focusing on obesity organized by the Alliance for Health Promotion and involving representatives from the Mayor’s office, the United Way, health organizations, neighborhood organizations, educators, fitness and nutrition experts, members of the media, and local foundations. These groups used the information mainly in raising awareness of the issue locally, and particularly of its spatial dimension.

This story was initially published in Stories: Using Information in Community Building and Local Policy in June 2007.

Phyllis Betts, Director of the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action (CBANA) at the University of Memphis contributed the information for this story.


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