The foreclosure next door can make you fat
Researchers wondered what the real-estate crisis has done to those of us who haven't lost our homes. Here's what they learned.
Madelyn Insley put on 10 pounds last year after she started working again after being a stay-at-home mom.
"I assumed my weight gain was due to a blown knee from overtraining and sitting at a desk all day instead of chasing toddlers around all day," she wrote in an email.
Then she heard about the work of Harvard University researcher Mariana Arcaya. Now Insley wonders if the three foreclosed houses within a stone's throw of her own home might also have something to do with her weight gain.
Arcaya has been measuring stress on neighbors of foreclosed homes. She began in 2010, in the middle of the housing crisis, after watching a TV news discussion about whether government or lenders should help people who were losing their homes to foreclosure.
It was one of those arguments that raged in the foreclosure crisis: Is it fair or unfair to rescue homeowners who might have brought trouble on themselves by overspending and taking on too much debt?
'What about the rest of us?'
"That's the wrong question," Arcaya thought. She's a public-health expert who also is trained and experienced as an urban planner, and she wondered: "What about what it's doing to the rest of us?"
"You're not an island," she explains. She wanted to know about the effect on homeowners when their homes' values are discounted by cheaply priced foreclosures nearby. Was there a way, she wondered, to measure what homeowners must feel as they watch their neighbors depart, graffiti proliferate, nearby homes decay and yards grow weedy? What about the risk of crime that might make it unsafe to live near abandoned homes and unwise to allow children to play outdoors?
"I wanted to know: Would we see this in the health data?" she says.
She designed a research project to find out. She and five colleagues studied the effects of neighboring foreclosures on 159 people in 42 Massachusetts towns. They also looked at 1,909 others who had no foreclosures nearby.
These research subjects have long been part of a 42-year-old research project called the Framingham Offspring Cohort. It's the second generation of the famous Framingham Heart Study, begun in 1948 to learn about the ongoing heart health of 5,209 women and men, ages 30 to 62, who lived then in Framingham, Mass.
Now, three years later, Arcaya and her colleagues have their answer: A neighbor who is roughly 5-foot-6 and lives within a block of a foreclosed home gained, on average, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds in a year. Beyond that one block (100 meters), however, there was no measurable effect.
A pound and a half doesn't sound dramatic. Your weight may fluctuate that much in a week. But it's an average – some gained more and others less. The point is that living near a foreclosure caused a measurable change in neighbors' lives. The researchers worked hard to rule out chance. They looked forward and backward in time and examined the experiences of the nearly 2,000 unaffected people, to rule out influences other than nearby foreclosures.
Madelyn Insley was amused and amazed when she heard about the research. Could her weight gain really be her neighborhood's fault? "Who's to say?" she says.
By email, she explained how her stress increased as she watched her block empty out:
"I live in a very nice neighborhood in Virginia Beach, Va., ($400,000+ homes) and have three foreclosures on our court. Two of them were recently purchased and are now up for sale (flips). But one house in particular sits wasting away at the head of the street. The previous owner stripped it clean: no window dressings, the custom mailbox was snatched out, even sold the palm trees out front, leaving the grass and landscaping a disaster. It is an embarrassment to our neighborhood and degrades the value (at least in perception) to those houses around it. Heaven help the houses on the same street trying to sell just doors down from it."As the second and third neighboring homes went into foreclosure, Insley felt the need to return to the workforce. These foreclosures made her feel vulnerable:
"Of course, when the family next door, where my babysitter resided, suddenly packed up and was gone, I felt the stress of possibly the whole American mentality: Are we next? This is what prompted me to head back to work. The odds are better with two incomes."
How does it work?
Precisely how such stress might translate into weight gain is anybody's guess. But it's not hard to surmise.
"We know that a common response to stress is changing your eating and drinking habits, changing your sleep habits," Arcaya says. It's also possible, she adds, that people retreat indoors when a neighborhood feels unsafe, leading to reduced physical activity.
The study was relatively small, and so there's always a possibility that the researchers' finding was the result of chance. But that seems unlikely since Arcaya's next, as-yet unpublished research project shows a link between increased alcohol consumption and higher blood pressure among people who live near foreclosures.
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