Walkable neighborhoods reduce risk of obesity-related cancers in women, study finds

A recent study conducted by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and NYU Grossman School of Medicine has revealed that residing in a more walkable neighborhood can offer protection against the risk of obesity-related cancers in women. These include postmenopausal breast , ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, and multiple myeloma.

Obesity has been linked to an increased risk of 13 types of cancer in women. Physical activity, regardless of body size, has been known to lower the risk of some of these cancers. Neighborhood walkability, characterized by urban design features that promote pedestrian activity, plays a key role in encouraging physical activity and is associated with lower body mass index. Until now, long-term studies examining the relationship between neighborhood walkability and the risk of obesity-related cancer were limited.

The study found that women residing in neighborhoods with higher walkability levels, as measured by factors like accessibility to destinations and population density over approximately 24 years, had a lower risk of obesity-related cancers, particularly postmenopausal breast cancer. However, there were also moderate protective associations for endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, and multiple myeloma. Women living in areas with the highest levels of neighborhood walkability (the top 25%) had a 26% lower risk of obesity-related cancers compared to those in the least walkable neighborhoods (the lowest 25%).

Andrew Rundle, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School, highlighted that these findings contribute to the growing evidence of how urban design can impact the health of aging populations. He noted that while individual-level interventions to increase physical activity and reduce obesity are costly and often short-term, urban design can create environments that promote walking, increase overall physical activity, and reduce car-dependency, potentially leading to better prevention of diseases related to unhealthy weight.

Interestingly, the study also noted that the association between high neighborhood walkability and a lower risk of obesity-related cancers was stronger for women living in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty. This suggests that neighborhood social and economic factors are relevant to the risk of developing obesity-related cancers.

The research involved 14,274 women aged 34 to 65 recruited between 1985 and 1991 at a mammography screening center in NYC. They were followed for nearly three decades, and neighborhood walkability in their residential Census tract was measured throughout this period. The study assessed the relationship between neighborhood walkability and the risk of overall and site-specific obesity-related cancers, including postmenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, and multiple myeloma.

By the end of 2016, 18% of the women in the study had experienced their first obesity-related cancer. The most common cancer observed was postmenopausal breast cancer at 53%, followed by colorectal cancer at 14%, and endometrial cancer at 12%.

One of the co-authors, Yu Chen, Ph.D., from NYU Grossman School of Medicine, noted the uniqueness of the study in its long-term follow-up, which allowed for the examination of the effects of walkability over extended latency periods of cancer. Additionally, the study was able to measure neighborhood walkability as participants moved residences around the country during the follow-up period.

Source: Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

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