It Takes a Beautiful Village
Dilapidated neighborhoods adversely affect babies, even in utero.
Imagine living in a neighborhood where building after building is damaged and crumbling while garbage piles up on the sidewalk. Now imagine being pregnant, knowing you cannot afford to move and your child will grow up in a place with no clean, safe playgrounds on which to play and no flowers to admire on walks.
“People psychologically and physiologically embody their environments,” evolutionary psychology Daniel J. Kruger, PhD, of the University of Michigan, explains. “So if you want to build a healthy baby, you need a healthy environment for the baby to be born into.”
The study findings indicate that what creates a healthy environment goes beyond the traditional risk factors. While nutrition and access to health care are valuable, the psychological effects of one’s environment should not be overlooked, Kruger warns.
Research found that women in neighborhoods with a high concentration of dilapidated structures were more likely to have premature babies and babies with low birth weight births. This is a result of people psychologically embodying their environments, he adds.
“I want to be clear that this is not genetic determinism,” Kruger explains. “People are flexible in their responses; this [dynamic] has evolved—we are adaptive when we haven’t had health advantages.”
When humans—in this case, expectant mothers—sense that their environment is not safe, a chain reaction occurs in the body that affect physical, psychological and physiological well-being.
For example, Kruger explains, the mother-to-be may experience a surge in stress hormones. “The environment affects our perceptions of safety, fear of crime, and people’s estimated prospects for their children,” he says. “[This triggers] deep mechanisms that are related to our mortality patterns. Thousands of years ago, perceptions of environment had very real consequences for the child.”
If we want to promote health, we have to take a broader perspective, including looking at neighborhood conditions, the research shows.
This means taking neighborhood beautification projects, like planting gardens, more seriously.“We need reinforcement for those kinds of efforts, because there is a broad health impact beyond just beautification of a neighborhood,” Kruger says. “Simple beautification efforts can be done cheaply.”
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