Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A new report lays out the current research on the ways your immediate surroundings influence your health and aging process.
The aging of America’s 76 million Baby Boomers has created a demand for research on how best to live out the golden years. Studies often center on individual behaviors, such as exercise and eating habits, as well as the genetic factors that can affect the health of those advancing in age.
A growing body of research is focusing on environmental influence. One avenue of inquiry involves how neighborhood characteristics, such as walkability, income level, and safety, can affect people’s ability to stay healthy and benefit from “aging in place”—that is, remaining in their homes and communities, as most Baby Boomers have indicated they’d like to do.
The Washington, D.C.-based Population Reference Bureau recently published a report that summarizes the state of this research. CityLab spoke with the co-author Mark Mather, PRB’s associate vice president of U.S. programs, about how neighborhoods influence physical and mental health, and how policymakers can use this information to make disadvantaged communities better places to live and grow old in.
What is the significance of neighborhood-focused research for America’s aging?
Some older adults are living in neighborhoods that may be making them sick. These communities aren’t safe, they’re not walkable, and they lack good public transportation and other resources. The fact that people may be living in these neighborhoods for decades is troubling, as the impact of poor conditions accumulates over time and leads to chronic health problems. While “aging in place” usually has positive connotations—the ability to retain one’s social network in familiar surroundings, a less expensive option than a nursing home—in these cases it’s more problematic.
It’s important to note that the studies outlined in the report, though they isolate for environmental factors, aren’t claiming causal effect. Because the neighborhood features that play a role in health and aging, such as income level, crime rates, and walkability, are often closely related, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about a neighborhood that is leading to older adults’ health problems. As a result, the studies make a case for association rather than causality.
How can your neighborhood affect your physical health?
The research shows that walkability is extremely important. As people get older, they may stop working, and the spaces in which they move shrink. Their immediate neighborhood really starts to matter. If they don’t walk regularly, it negatively affects their health. Consequently, issues like having sidewalks in good repair and free from vandalism become key for encouraging aging residents to stay active.
How can your neighborhood affect your mental health?
Older adults often lack the social connections that younger adults have through their work and families. This is especially true for older women, who are more likely to outlive their spouses and live alone. It’s crucial for older adults to have ways to connect with other older adults in their neighborhoods. For instance, studies show that widows fare better emotionally in neighborhoods that are home to other widows.
Neighborhoods with poor conditions can also create something called “weathering,” which stems from the chronic stress of living for years in an environment that is, for instance, run down and unsafe. Living in such a neighborhood eats away at a person’s health over time.
How can we use this research to make neighborhoods better places to age?
A city might implement solutions such as repairing sidewalks and hosting community events to give older adults an opportunity to meet socially and engage in physical activity. Yet these studies generally offer broad findings, and each city needs to come up with solutions for their particular problems. If you’re in Buffalo, for example, the big issue may be clearing sidewalks soon after it snows so older adults can quickly access neighborhood resources, whereas a Miami suburb will have different needs.
What should the focus of future research in this area be?
Some studies have looked at the influence of racial or ethnic segregation on the aging process. It’s hard to know what to conclude from this research, because there appears to be both advantages and disadvantages to living in an ethnic enclave. For instance, if you’re Latinx and you’re aging in a neighborhood where many of your relatives live, there are obvious social advantages. At the same time, ethnic enclaves tend to be high-poverty areas, which creates disadvantages. These factors may be balancing each other out to some extent—but more research is needed to better understand what’s happening.
Many of these studies are also based on a snapshot of what’s occurring in a community at a particular moment. To get a clear picture, the studies need to track people over time, measuring their health through changes like marriage, divorce, and retirement. It takes a long time to do this kind of longitudinal research, so cross-sectional snapshots are much more common. But it’s harder to ascertain the causal links when you only have cross-sectional data.