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Duke researchers discover link between exposure to violence, teen obesity


Candice Odgers has previously published research on how exposure to crime can be a factor in the prevalence of psychotic symptoms in children.

Teens living in violent neighborhoods may have more long-term health risks than they realize, according to new research.

Published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, a recent study by Duke researchers shows a correlation between exposure to violence and obesity in adolescents. Candice Odgers, senior author of the study and research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, said the researchers wanted to expand on research that identified that children in neighborhoods with violence had worse health.

“We’ve seen—in the epidemiological research—this association that kids from lower income backgrounds and kids who have these kinds of experiences—either being maltreated or living in high violence neighborhoods—experience worse health,” Odgers said. “We wanted to understand what some of the mechanisms were.”

The paper includes data from two studies conducted in California and North Carolina. 

California researchers followed a group of adolescents for 30 days via cellphone surveys three times a day, collecting information about eating habits and violence exposure. In the larger North Carolina study, researchers used a similar method of conducting cellphone surveys for two weeks, but also collected additional data using Jawbone—a wearable device similar to the FitBit—to more accurately track activity and sleep patterns.

In both the Californian and North Carolinian samples, researchers saw strong evidence that teenagers consumed more unhealthy food—particularly soda—on the days they witnessed violence. They noted higher soda consumption in North Carolina despite similar rates of exposure to violence, but Odgers said that this effect can be attributed to the prevalence of fast food in the South.

“The amount of soda these kids consumed during our observation period predicted increases in BMI over time and a higher probability of being overweight when we followed them up a year and a half later,” Odgers said.

Along with the increased soda consumption, researchers noted several other behaviors that may have an impact on weight. Joy Piontak, affiliated scholar in Sanford, wrote in an email that teenagers reported being more active on days in which they were exposed to violence, while feeling more tired the next day.

She noted that the correlation may be because "increased activity in neighborhoods that are unsafe may leave children more vulnerable to exposure to violence.”

Odgers explained one of the advantages of the study as being able to compare behavior across different situations for the same subject. As they continue to track the North Carolina sample, the researchers said there was more insight into the mechanisms of teenage obesity to be discovered.

“I think one of the things we take away from this study is that there might be something about the violence exposure itself that’s influencing eating behaviors or disruptions in sleep, that can help us to better understand changes in obesity and obesity risk during early adolescence,” she said.

Piontak is looking to study next how factors like racial and economic segregation may affect the relationship between health behaviors and exposure to violence, highlighting the importance of safety in adolescent health.

“[This research] shows the importance of ensuring that all children have access to safe environments—not only at home, but also in their neighborhoods and schools,” Piontak wrote.