Fear of violence leads to weight problems for some young women

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ANN ARBOR—Young African-American women who live in fear of the violence in their neighborhoods are more likely to become obese when they reach their 20s and 30s, new research from the University of Michigan Flint Adolescent Study shows.

The community-based study in Flint, Mich., reveals that African-American girls who express fear about their violent surroundings at age 15 experienced a larger increase in body mass index from ages 21 to 32, the U-M School of Public Health researchers found.

Among the 681 young men and women followed for 18 years, there was no tendency toward obesity when either gender was asked about being the victims of or witnesses to crime.

“The health deteriorating effect of neighborhood crime is not limited to those who are physically beaten, battered or shot. The effect is far beyond a direct physical effect and extends to any individual who perceives the fear,” said lead author Dr. Shervin Assari, research investigator in the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health in the U-M School of Public Health and Department of Psychiatry. “Chronic anxiety due to fear from living in a high crime neighborhood is taking its toll on Flint residents.”

Body Mass Index is based on a calculation using height and weight. A number over 30 is considered obese. The mean BMI for the women moved from 27 to almost 33 over the course of the study, with the range being from 16 to 69.

Across the nation, African-American women struggle the most with weight among all groups, with 57 percent of the population considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

“As this study shows, the social environment that you are living in at the moment has major implications for your health one decade later. And this is true for female black youth who live in Flint, too,” Assari said.

“So, our response should not be limited to designing and implementing interventions and programs that influence individuals or small groups. Solutions should include policy changes that improve lives of a hundred thousand Flint residents simultaneously through promotion of safety and less risky social environment. This includes policies that support investments on employment, crime prevention and promotion of education system, to name a few.”

The study, reported in the Archives of Trauma Research, uses data from the Flint Adolescent Study 1994-2012, which followed at-risk students from four Flint public high schools for 18 years.

The students were asked about their fear of violence in the neighborhood and whether they had concerns about being hurt. They also were asked if they had witnessed a crime against another person in the 12 months before the survey, or if they had been threatened or physically hurt by someone else in the same time period.

Other researchers were Maryam Moghami Lankarani, Cleopatra Howard Caldwell and Marc Zimmerman. The study was funded by National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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