NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Living in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood may help shield older men from depression, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that among 740 older adults living in the Seattle area, men who lived in more walkable neighborhoods tended to show fewer depression symptoms than men from less walker-friendly areas.
The findings, published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, are in line with research suggesting that moderate exercise can help battle depression. However, the link between neighborhood “walkability” and lower depression risk was not fully explained by higher exercise levels.
“That tells us that there’s something else about the neighborhood itself,” said lead study author Dr. Ethan M. Berke, of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
One possibility is that these neighborhoods allow older adults to feel more connected to their communities and less socially isolated, Berke told Reuters Health.
Walkable neighborhoods have sidewalks, streets with safe intersections, and stores, restaurants and other destinations within a short distance. In their study, Berke and his colleagues found that men who lived in such areas had lower scores on a standard measure of depression — even with other factors, like overall health, income and exercise habits, taken into account.
The same was not true of women, but the reason for this is not clear.
Men are less likely than women to seek care for depression symptoms, which may leave them more vulnerable to environmental factors that worsen depression. Women may also have other forms of social support that buffer them from the effects of living in a less-walkable neighborhood.
The study findings do not prove that a person’s neighborhood changes his depression risk, Berke pointed out. But if pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods do offer depression protection, that would be important for older adults who are deciding where to live after they retire, he said. It could also mean that more senior centers and assisted living facilities should be built in walkable neighborhoods.
Suburban sprawl is often seen as an environmental issue, Berke noted, but recent studies are pointing to possible effects on people’s health as well. Some research has linked suburban living, with its reliance on cars and, often, lack of sidewalks, to a higher risk of obesity.
“Hopefully,” Berke said, “we’ll start looking at neighborhood design as a public health issue.”
SOURCE: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, April 2007.