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Walkable environs cut risk of obesity-related cancers in women


HQ Team

October 5, 2023: A new study by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and NYU Grossman School of Medicine says that women who reside in areas with more space for walks and related activities have a greater chance of avoiding risk of obesity-related cancers such as postmenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and endometrial cancer.

There were an estimated 18.1 million cancer cases around the world in 2020. Of these, 9.3 million cases were in men and 8.8 million in women.

Breast cancer was the most common cancer in women worldwide, contributing 25.8% of the total number of new cases diagnosed in 2020.

The top three – breast, colorectal and lung cancers – contributed 44.5% of all cancers (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer).

Cervical cancer was the fourth most common cancer in women, contributing 6.9% of the total number of new cases diagnosed in 2020.

Study scope

This study highlights the protective effects of walkable neighborhoods against obesity-related cancers.

The research focused on a cohort of 14,274 women aged 34 to 65, recruited from a mammography screening center in New York City between 1985 and 1991. The study followed these women for nearly three decades, providing a unique opportunity to assess the long-term effects of neighborhood walkability on cancer risk. The researchers also considered neighborhood walkability as the participants moved residences during the follow-up period.

Defining walkable neighborhoods

Neighborhood walkability encompasses various urban design features that encourage pedestrian activity, promote overall physical activity, and reduce car-dependency. It is typically characterized by factors such as accessibility to destinations and population density. This study measured walkability over approximately 24 years of follow-up, allowing for a comprehensive evaluation of its impact on cancer risk.

The study revealed several noteworthy findings:

Reduced Risk of Obesity-Related Cancers: Women residing in neighborhoods with higher levels of walkability had a lower risk of obesity-related cancers. This effect was particularly pronounced for postmenopausal breast cancer, but moderate protective associations were also observed for endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, and multiple myeloma.

Substantial Risk Reduction: Women living in the top 25 percent of walkable neighborhoods experienced a significant 26 percent lower risk of obesity-related cancers compared to those in the lowest 25 percent of walkability.

Economic and Social Factors: Interestingly, the protective association between high neighborhood walkability and reduced cancer risk was stronger for women living in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty. This suggests that social and economic factors within neighborhoods play a role in cancer risk.

“We further observed that the association between high neighborhood walkability and lower risk of overall obesity-related cancers was stronger for women living in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty. These findings suggest that neighborhood social and economic environments are also relevant to the risk of developing obesity-related cancers,” said Sandra India-Aldana, Ph.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and lead author

Of the total number of women studied, 18% had a first obesity-related cancer by the end of 2016. The most common cancer was postmenopausal breast cancer at 53%, followed by colorectal cancer at 14%, and endometrial cancer at 12%.

“Our study is unique in that the long-term follow-up allowed us to study effects of walkability with potential long latency periods of cancer and we were able to measure neighborhood walkability as the participants moved residences around the country during follow-up” said co-author Yu Chen Ph.D., NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Implications for Public Health:

The design of urban environments can play a pivotal role. Creating neighborhoods that promote walking, increase overall physical activity, and reduce car-dependency may lead to substantial improvements in preventing obesity-related cancers.

This research also underscores the importance of urban design in influencing the health and well-being of aging populations, especially women. As these findings are based on long-term follow-up data, they provide valuable insights into the potential long-latency effects of walkability on cancer risk, further emphasizing the need for continued research and urban planning strategies that prioritize walkability.

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