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Living in densely populated neighbourhoods can actually decrease risk of diabetes and obesity

Toronto, January 15, 2014

By Geoff Koehler

Dr. Gillian Booth
Dr. Gillian Booth

Torontonians living in neighbourhoods that aren’t conducive to walking have a 33 per cent greater risk of developing diabetes or being obese, according to new research.

The design of Toronto’s neighbourhoods such as Bridle Path-Sunnybrook-York Mills, Edenbridge- Humber Valley, and Morningside encourage dependency on cars and discourage walking – risk factors that can lead to obesity and diabetes.

“Although diabetes can be prevented through physical activity, healthy eating and weight loss, we determined the environment in which one lives is also an important indicator of one’s risk,” said Dr. Gillian Booth, an endocrinologist and researcher with St. Michael’s Hospital and co-author of the study, published in the online journal PLOS ONE today.

Dr. Booth and others at the hospital’s Centre for Research on Inner City Health examined the impact residential density and the proximity of walkable destinations have on Torontonians’ health. They found that while each could be used separately to predict the health of a neighbourhood, the combination of these two factors provided “additional explanatory power.”

Toronto neighbourhoods as far west as Roncesvalles, as eastward as The Beaches and as north as Yonge-Eglinton had higher density and more walkable destinations than communities outside of the city's core.

The study shows that people who live in more walkable and densely populated neighbourhoods are two times more likely to walk, bicycle or take public transit. Individuals who live in sparsely populated areas that are also far from destinations such as grocery stores, restaurants and shops are also significantly more likely to drive or own a vehicle.

Dr. Rick Glazier
Dr. Rick Glazier

“We focused on density and destinations because they’re potentially modifiable,” said co-author Dr. Rick Glazier, research director in the Department of Family and Community Medicine of St. Michael's Hospital. “Policy makers, planners and public health officials can use either of these measures to inform urban design and improve community health.”

This study builds on Drs. Booth and Glazier’s earlier research on how neighbourhoods are determinants of health. In 2007, they showed that diabetes rates were highest in areas that have lower income levels, higher unemployment rates and a higher proportion of visible minorities.

Diabetes, is a leading cause of vision loss, kidney failure, limb amputations and cardiovascular disease. Providing health care to those affected presents a significant challenge to our health care system. It’s estimated that diabetes will cost the Canadian healthcare system $16.9 billion a year by 2020.

Data was culled from the Canada census, an urban transportation survey and a national health survey. Drs. Booth and Glazier are both scientists affiliated with the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences – one of the data sources the authors used for their study.

This work was funded by a research grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It was supported by the Centre for Research on Inner City Health of St. Michael's Hospital and by the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Media contacts

For more information, a high-resolution version of the attached map, or to arrange an interview with Dr. Booth or Dr. Glazier, contact:

Geoff Koehler
Media Relations Adviser
416-864-6060 ext. 6537
KoehlerG@smh.ca