Science has repeatedly highlighted the importance of contact with nature for happiness, better mental health, and even longer life. Last year, a United States study demonstrated the longevity benefits of tree-filled neighbourhoods, while more recent research has shown how parks and green spaces could help slow cellular ageing.
But researchers at Columbia University’s School of Public Health and New York University’s School of Medicine have recently turned their attention to the benefits of an entirely different kind of urban design: walkable neighbourhoods.
These refer to residential areas that encourage pedestrian activity, or in which pedestrians can easily get around. These zones can easily be imagined as part of the “15-minute city” concept, in which all essential services are within a 15-minute walk or bike ride of homes.
More specifically, the scientists looked at the impact of these neighbourhoods on the risk of obesity-related cancers in women. This research is all the more important since the World Health Organization regularly warns of the rising levels of obesity worldwide and its consequences on health.
The global authority says obesity is a cause of 13 different types of cancer, including postmenopausal breast cancer and endometrial cancer.
Published in “Environmental Health Perspectives”, the study involved 14,274 women aged 34 to 65, recruited via a New York breast cancer-screening centre between 1985 and 1991, and followed for almost three decades.
The aim of this research was to investigate a potential association between the risk of obesity-related cancers and the walkability of the neighbourhoods in which the participants lived during the period of study.
Notably, 18% of the women included in the study had a first obesity-related cancer by the end of 2016, with postmenopausal breast cancer (53%), colorectal cancer (14%) and endometrial cancer (12%) being the most common among the sample.
The scientists observed that women living in neighbourhoods conducive to walking had lower rates of obesity-related cancers.
“These results contribute to the growing evidence of how urban design affects the health and well-being in ageing populations,” said Andrew Rundle, professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School.
“Urban design can create a context that promotes walking, increases overall physical activity, and reduces car dependency, which could lead to subsequent improvements in preventing diseases attributed to unhealthy weight.”
In detail, the study revealed that women who lived in the most-walkable neighbourhoods had a 26% lower risk of obesity-related cancers than participants who lived in the least-walkable neighbourhoods.
This protective association was particularly marked for postmenopausal breast cancer, but more “moderate” associations were also found for endometrial and ovarian cancer, and multiple myeloma.
“We further observed that the association between high neighbourhood walkability and lower risk of overall obesity-related cancers was stronger for women living in neighbourhoods with higher levels of poverty,” said study lead author Sandra India-Aldana.
“These findings suggest that neighbourhood social and economic environments are also relevant to risk of developing obesity-related cancers,” she concluded.