Home is where the heart is, but that heart may not stay healthy if you choose the wrong place to live.
"Where you live -- the apartment or house, and the neighborhood itself -- has a big impact on how healthy you are today and over time," says Dr. Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Many of us overlook these dangers when relocating. We choose to live in areas that have cheaper housing or better jobs. Or, we may move to be closer to family.
But when deciding where to live, it is easy to forget that your decision impacts:
- Where your child goes to school
- Whether you have access to healthy food
- Whether you have safe places to play or exercise
- Which jobs are available and how long it takes to get to work.
Environmental factors also may pose hazards. Many people live in regions that have high levels of fine particulate matter. This type of pollution results when liquid droplets in the air combine with dust, dirt, smoke or soot.
Research has shown that people who live in such particle-rich environments are more likely to suffer from an array of illnesses, including coronary heart disease, cancer, renal failure and cognitive decline.
Other environments also might contribute to illness and disease. For example:
- Residents of the Southwest U.S. are exposed to more ultraviolet light, which can put them at more risk of squamous cell carcinoma.
- People living near highly traveled roads may be more susceptible to developing rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, according to some studies.
Even something as simple as an area's cost of living can impact the health of your family, Woolf says.
"How much you pay on rent or a mortgage determines how much you have left to spend on things like food, child care and health care," he says.
How to choose a great place to live
The takeaway message is to give serious thought to where you plan to live.
"To the extent they can, people should consider all of the benefits and opportunities -- or challenges and limitations -- that where they live provide," he says.
Whenever possible, look for neighborhoods that are safe and affordable. Make sure you have access of high-quality schools and transit, and that the neighborhood has grocery stores with healthy food options. Choose a region with many job opportunities.
By contrast, avoid neighborhoods without parks and other services. Neighborhoods that have shabby houses and apartment complexes are relatively easy to spot.
"What's less obvious are environmental hazards like pollution or mold, lack of reliable transportation that make it easy to get to work, jobs that pay well, or lack of affordable child care," Woolf says. "All of these things matter for health."
If job or family concerns require you to live in an area that poses risks to your health, try to make choices that will combat at least some of these threats, Woolf says.
"A person working three jobs to make ends meet or caring for children and elderly parents likely doesn't have much bandwidth to think about regular exercise," Woolf says. "But (he) may be able to live near public transit, which is linked to walking more."
Another overlooked way to improve your health is to stay in school.
"Every year of extra education makes a difference because it affects how much you money you earn -- which, in turn, determines where you can afford to live," Woolf says. "Just knowing about all of these connections can help."
Finally, remember that even if you cannot control where you live, you can choose healthful behaviors that will have a large impact on your health, Woolf says.
"Some behaviors -- like not smoking -- will have more impact on health than the environment where you live," he says.