OHSU Researcher Explores Role of Neighberhood Design in Healthy Aging

04/14/03    Portland, Ore.

Oregon Health & Science University researchers are launching a new study to determine the impact of neighborhood design on physical activity patterns and overall health among seniors. The goal of the Portland-based study is to gain information to improve community designs, and to ensure healthy aging and independent living among senior residents. OHSU's Yvonne Michael, Sc.D., an assistant professor of public health and preventive medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine, is directing the study.

"Physical activity is important for healthy aging," said Michael. "Regular physical activity reduces the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, colon cancer and diabetes, as well as the risk of premature death. Walking is an excellent form of physical activity for seniors because it is versatile, easy, cheap and safe for aging bodies. However, approximately 34 percent of the population aged 50 and older is sedentary[i]. There is widespread interest in understanding the influence of community planning and design on the promotion of active living."

The study will also examine the relationship between neighborhood construction and social connectivity. Social connectivity describes a sense of closeness and trust shared between members of a neighborhood. It is also a factor associated with better health and reduced mortality.

The study is broken down into a number of phases, including observation of construction in 10 Portland neighborhoods, door-to-door surveys and focus groups. Focus groups offer a unique chance for seniors to provide feedback about their neighborhoods, both good and bad. These discussion groups are currently under way in select neighborhoods in north, northeast and southeast Portland. At these meetings, seniors meet fellow neighborhood residents and share their opinions about their neighborhoods.

"The importance of this study is clear given the large - and growing - proportion of people over 65," added Michael. "To ensure healthy aging and independent living, communities must be appropriately designed so that people can be active throughout their lives. The study hopes to present findings to policy-makers and urban designers so that positive changes can be implemented in all neighborhoods."

The study coincides with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) nationwide effort to promote physical activity through better community design. A statement in the CDC's "National Blueprint for Increasing Physical Activity Among Adults Age 50 and Older" says, "[Neighborhoods] may be engineered in a manner that discourages regular physical activity among older adults. Some neighborhoods have no sidewalks, other areas are in the midst of busy thoroughfares, making it dangerous to cross the street to a nearby store."

[i] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity Trends - United States 1990-98. MMWR 50(9):166-169, 2001.

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