Walkable Neighborhoods May Lower the Risk of Obesity-Related Cancers, Including Breast Cancer

Walkable neighborhoods limit the need for cars, which can help reduce air pollution, enhance the safety of pedestrians, and get more neighbors chatting face to face. They also come with the health benefits of walking, which include better heart health, lower diabetes risk, stronger bones, and help maintaining your weight. A new study finds, by extension, walkable neighborhoods may protect women from a variety of cancers.

Research recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives looked at the link between average neighborhood walkability and obesity-related cancer risk in women. The researchers say obesity is linked with an increased risk of 13 cancers in women, and there’s already an established link between walkability and lower obesity levels. This new research shows that neighborhoods that make walking easy have lower rates of cancers linked with excess weight, especially postmenopausal breast cancer.

Older man and woman walk through their neighborhood

Dr. Andrew Rundle, study co-author and professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, says, “These results contribute to the growing evidence of how urban design affects the health and well-being of aging populations… urban design can create a context that promotes walking, increases overall physical activity, and reduces car dependency, which could lead to subsequent improvements in preventing diseases attributed to unhealthy weight.”

The study involved data from more than 14,000 women from New York City who were recruited into the NYU Women’s Health Study between 1985 and 1991. They were followed for nearly 30 years. The researchers calculated walkability scores for each woman’s address, including when they moved, and then looked at cancer cases. By 2016, 18% of the participants had developed an obesity-related cancer, with more than half of cases coming from postmenopausal breast cancer, 14% from colorectal cancer, and 12% from endometrial cancer.

The researchers found that those living in an area within the top 25% of neighborhood walkability had a 26% lower risk of obesity-related cancers, compared to those from neighborhoods with the least walkability. The strongest association was in postmenopausal breast cancer, but there were also moderate links with endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, and multiple myeloma.

Couple takes baby for neighborhood walk

The researchers also found that neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty saw a stronger link between walkability and these types of cancers than neighborhoods with less poverty.

The team says their findings show that policies regarding the way cities are built could help reduce the risk of obesity-related cancers in older women. However, they stress that further research is needed, especially among a more diverse population.

If you’re able to ditch the car because you live in a neighborhood that allows it, click here to learn some other benefits of driving less!

Women wave at each other while out for a neighborhood walk
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