For all the positive steps we can take for our health—exercise, social engagement, diet—much of our wellbeing is out of our control. A growing body of research demonstrates that factors such as stressors we experience, our parents’ income and education, and the neighborhoods we grow up in can all be risk factors for our health. Research has shown that economically disadvantaged neighborhoods lead to a greater risk of mortality and morbidity. At the same time, neighborhoods can also provide protective benefits. A recent study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society showed that, for Mexican American men aged 75 and older, living in a neighborhood with a high density of Mexican Americans is associated with a lower risk of depression (Gerst et al 2011).
The data was drawn from a large scale study, the Hispanic Established Populations for the Epidemiologic Study of the Elderly (H-EPESE) multi-wave study. Researchers looked at demographic factors such as immigration and marriage status, education, depressive symptoms, and physical health for almost 2000 community-dwelling Mexican Americans aged 75 and older. This individual data was coded by census tract to establish the percentage of Mexican Americans living in the neighborhood. The researchers used multilevel regression modeling to look for the effect on neighborhood on depressive symptoms, when controlling for other individual factors.
The researchers found that, for men, living in a neighborhood with a higher Mexican American population was predictive of fewer depressive symptoms. The effect of neighborhood for women on depression was in the same direction as for men, but was below statistical significance. As in most other studies, women had a higher overall rate of depression. Having a lower number of physical health problems and being married were also seen to be beneficial for the men, while, for women, a lower education level and physical limitations were predictive of depressive symptoms. The researchers hypothesized that within this cohort of Mexican Americans, neighborhood and other extrafamilial social support may be better sustained for men.
The findings suggest that neighborhood environment may provide men in particular with additional resources for wellbeing. Other research has suggested that neighborhood social support is often more closely related to depressive symptoms among older men than for older women. It should be stressed that the research did not demonstrably show that there is no neighborhood benefit for women, merely that it was not statistically significant within the sample.
This research suggests the need to consider gender when developing community-level prevention programs, and the possible utility of creating new community programs for older Mexican Americans in neighborhoods that are low-density Mexican American. The researchers argue that future longitudinal studies, and comparisons with other minority populations, will better allow us to understand the relationship between neighborhood and mental health.
Gerst, K, Miranda PY, Eschbach K, Sheffield KM, Peek MK, and Markides KS, (2011). “Protective Neighborhoods: Neighborhood Proportion of Mexican Americans and Depressive Symptoms in Very Old Mexican Americans.” Journal of the American Geriatric Society (59):353-358.