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Environmental Impacts on Health

Edited by: Jasleen Sekhon


Environmental Influences

Very often we to forget or neglect the fact that our environment plays an essential role in our health and how we develop as individuals, and it is necessary that we give it the same attention that we do any other influence in our lives. When considering the environment, the thought only focuses on the physical environment, but our social environments are equally as important. They both shape our health. There are three main trends in the big study “Diez Roux, A. V., & Mair, C. (2010). Neighborhoods and health” focused on:

  1. Looking closely at environmental influences, focusing on understanding the social inequalities and race/ethnic differences in health are essential as neighbourhood characteristics could contribute to inequality in health. E.g.- social position and ethnicity

  2. Putting the blame on individuals for the causes of ill-health are insufficient and fail to capture the true disease determinants. E.g. - looking at groups or context that the individuals belong in to help understand the distribution of health and disease

  3. Considering the health effects of policies for disease prevention efforts could have important health implications. E.g. - urban planning policy


Social interactions can be affected by the quality of public spaces in one’s neighbourhood. Behavioural and stress processes can also be negatively enhanced causing unhealthy coping mechanisms. Diez Roux & Mair (2010) clearly depicts in Figure 1, that both physical and social aspects of our environment can affect us through multiple avenues and in turn impact our behaviour mediators and stress thus affecting our health which includes chronic-diseases and mental health.


Figure 1: Schematic representation of the contributions of neighborhood environments to health inequalities.


From a very early study done by Haan et.al, it was observed that the poorer neighbourhoods had a 50% higher risk of death compared to their better-off counterparts even when race, sex, age, indivudal income and chronic health were controlled. Literature reviews on this topic have generally and unanimously concluded that residing in deprived, poor or socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhoods is highly associated with poorer physical and mental health, greater incidence of diseases, adverse child health outcomes and higher prevalence of chronic disease risk factors.


Physical Environment

Land use, density, patterns and access to destinations such as health foods, recreational resources and transportation systems all influence a community’s health. In poorer communities many of these resources are not present or are not maintained which negatively affects individuals living in these areas. A well-equipped environment has a positive association with physical activity which is why land use policies and policies to create or increase access to places for physical activity are essential. Another factor to consider is the presence of healthy food options in the environment. Lower socioeconomic communities tend to have fewer healthy options that are also less accessible due to the poorly maintained/ underdeveloped transportation systems. The physical environment has also shown to have an immense impact on mental health and with poorer environmental conditions there is a linear relationship with poorer mental health especially depressive symptoms.


Social Environment

Social norms, aspects of social connections (social cohesion) and social stressors all fall under social environments. These have the potential to facilitate behaviour, enforce social control and norms and influence stress levels. One of the main factors associated and researched in relation to the social environment is mental health, specifically depression and it was noted that a greater sense of social cohesion and social capital were the biggest protective factors against depression. Individuals who stated that they lived in hazardous conditions or poorer communities were associated with greater depressive symptoms. However, the social environment is a lot more complex to measure and evaluate compared to the physical environment.


Summary

Although it is recognized that an individual’s environment both physical and social play an essential role in their health, more research needs to be done on both. In addition, policies need to be reevaluated to ensure each community has enough resources to function effectively and create a positive influence on one’s health in order to help prevent both physical and mental health issues later on.



References

Diez Roux, A. V., & Mair, C. (2010). Neighborhoods and health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1186(1), 125–145. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05333.x


Haan, M., G.A. Kaplan & T. Camacho. 1987. Poverty and health: Prospective Evidence from the Alameda County Study. Am. J. Epidemiol. 125: 989–998.


https://www.istockphoto.com/illustrations/poor-urban-community

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