UI study finds link between high death rate and poor neighborhood conditions

UI researchers conducted two studies that found a correlation between neighborhood conditions and high death and cancer rate.


Katie Goodale

Assistant Professor of Health and Human Physiology Qian Xiao poses for a portrait in the Field House on Monday Dec. 3, 2018. Xiao published a pair of observational studies on the health of people living in low-income communities.

Kelsey Harrell, News Reporter

UI researchers appear to have discovered that neighborhoods with worse conditions correlate with a higher mortality and the rate of colorectal cancer.

Researchers in the UI Department of Health and Human Physiology recently conducted two observational studies on neighborhood conditions and the correlation the conditions have to the residents’ health. One of the studies looked at the general mortality rate in the neighborhoods, and the other looked at the rates of colorectal cancer.

In the mortality-rate study, the researchers found that when neighborhood conditions improved, it seemed to correlate with a decrease in mortality rate, said UI Assistant Professor Qian Xiao, the lead researcher. If the conditions deteriorated, there was an increase in mortality, she said.

For the colorectal cancer study, Xiao and postdoctoral research scholar Dong Zhang found that if neighborhood conditions became worse, there was an increase in cancer risk and diagnosis, Xiao said. However, if conditions improved, there was no observed improvement in cancer risk, she said.

Because both studies were observational, the researchers didn’t actually go to the neighborhoods and improve the conditions, so they can’t say worse neighborhood conditions are the cause of higher mortality and worse health outcomes, Xiao said.

For the colorectal cancer study, the researchers looked at previous studies that had shown a link between mortality and cancer rates and socioeconomic status, Zhang said. The UI’s study looked at the long-term changes of status and observed how it was associated with cancer, he said.

Zhang said that, through his observations, he and Xiao were able to determine that long-term low socioeconomic status is associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer. After seeing the correlation between cancer risk and lower socioeconomic status, resources can be provided to improve areas with higher colorectal cancer risk.

“I think [the study is] more to provide awareness to more people that there’s a situation like this going on,” Zhang said. “Even at the individual level, if you’re living in a low socioeconomic community, it will still impact your health.”

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Although the UI’s study on neighborhood conditions didn’t focus on Iowa City, the city has participated in previous studies on neighborhood health, one focusing on asthma.

The city also puts on events to encourage neighborhood residents to interact with each other, said Marcia Bollinger, the neighborhood outreach coordinator. 

When the city partnered with the UI College of Public Health for a study on the occurrence of asthma in lower-income neighborhoods, they conducted surveys asking residents general questions about their living conditions, Bollinger said. Through these surveys, the city discovered that residents of the neighborhoods don’t feel comfortable talking to their neighbors, she said.

“Almost everyone said they wanted to have the opportunity to get to know their neighbors and that they didn’t feel comfortable asking neighbors for help when it came to health issues,” Bollinger said.

Since the UI’s study was conducted over a longer period of time, there is stronger evidence for the relationship between neighborhood conditions and overall neighborhood health, Xiao said. After this study, if worsening conditions are seen, more monitoring or other health-related interventions may be implemented to help the neighborhood, she said.

“I think that’s a good piece of evidence to have, and maybe in the future, studies can look at specific interventions for getting different neighborhoods to see if those will have an actual impact,” Xiao said.

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