The Relationship Between Perceptions of Neighborhood Characteristics and Obesity Among Children

This policy paper is from a series published by the National Bureau of Economic Research on obesity in the United States. The authors examined whether maternal perceptions of neighborhood environment affect children’s body weight. Although the U.S. population has grown steadily heavier since the 1970s, the increase is particularly sharp in children 6–11; the proportion of obese children this age increased from 4 to 18.8 percent from 1971–2004. Data are drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the Children of NLSY79.

While there is general agreement that the built environment plays an important role in obesity and in physical activity levels, studies attempting to find associations between specific aspects of the built environment and health behaviors often yield contradictory results. For example, while one study concluded that higher levels of perceived neighborhood safety correlated with higher levels of physical activity for adults, another study found that children’s own perceptions of neighborhood safety were inversely related to self-reported physical activity and BMI. Other studies have found no correlation between neighborhood crime rates and adult physical activity levels.

Overall, this paper concluded that neighborhood quality was not a particularly strong determinant of children’s weight. However, one significant finding was that mothers who are concerned about a lack of police protection in their neighborhoods tend to have heavier children. Also, minority mothers reported greater lack of police protection than White mothers, even after accounting for other family characteristics. However, analyses indicated the difference in perceived police protection did not fully account for differences in the average body weight of minority children compared to White children; therefore, the authors assume that there are other unobserved factors largely accounting for these group differences. The authors conclude that making policy recommendations based on these findings is premature, in large part because this analysis cannot explore causal relationships between perceptions of inadequate police protection and increased child body weight.

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