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Friday, May 25, 2012 - Page updated at 09:30 p.m.

UW study ties women's weight to property values

By Donna Gordon Blankinship
The Associated Press

The value of your home may be a stronger predictor of your weight than the genes inherited from your ancestors, a new public-health study from the University of Washington has found.

Health researchers and government officials usually group people by income or education level or even by ZIP code, but this study illustrates a more targeted approach, according to Adam Drewnowski, professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

A random telephone survey in 2008-09 combined with King County tax records showed women living in the homes in the lowest 25 percent of the assessed property values in Seattle and the surrounding suburbs were more than three times more likely to be obese than women living in the most expensive homes.

The study, paid for by the National Institutes of Health and published online this week in the journal Social Science & Medicine, found that within King County, there are many local pockets or micro-neighborhoods of better or worse health. Since King County is one of the healthiest counties in the state, problems like obesity could be overlooked without more specific data, Drewnowski said.

"Huge social disparities have been buried by looking at data at a very crude level," he said.

Property values are a shorthand for all kinds of things, he added. Commute times, proximity to parks and other safe places to exercise, and access to healthy foods may all be related to property values, depending on where you live.

He expects future studies of other cities or counties to find a similar correlation between property values and obesity. Of course, just moving people into richer neighborhoods won't fix their health problems, he is quick to point out.

The researchers expected to find a difference between the impact on women and men, since other studies have found that men's health is not as closely tied to economics, but the differences were more dramatic than Drewnowski expected.

For each $238,000 drop in property values, obesity rates went up 80 percent among women, the researchers found.

Those gender differences call for confirmation by other research and some clarification, said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involved in this research.

Mozaffarian said Drewnowski's study made him wonder if there are more obese women in lower property values or more lean women in higher property values, or both. If obesity is more evenly distributed among men, the difference could be great at both ends of the spectrum.

"If this is confirmed, maybe women are more influenced by the home environment," Mozaffarian said, adding that he couldn't be sure unless more research was completed.

He'd also like to know what part property values play in the obesity equation. Is it just that nicer homes are usually in more walkable neighborhoods and closer to grocery stores? Or is something else going on?

Drewnowski has some theories of his own. He believes obesity in women is closely connected to financial insecurity. Since property values separate the economically secure from those who worry about where their next meal is coming from, as well as determining if they are safe from crime, the differences between women could be related to stress.

People trying to help others lose weight talk a lot about individual responsibility and willingness to change, but where you live is not necessarily a choice, especially not in Seattle where home values are so high, Drewnowski said.

He also believes that property values measure more than income levels because they can show something about a person over a longer period of time. There may also be another social element, since obesity rates were affected not just by an individual home value but by all homes within the equivalent of a 10-minute walk.

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