How Living in a Disadvantaged Neighborhood May Affect the Brain
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In a recent publication in the journal, Communications Medicine, investigators from the UCLA Division of Digestive Diseases and the Goodman Luskin Microbiome Center at UCLA showed evidence suggesting that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood can affect food choices, weight gain and even the microstructure of the brain.
There is an extensive literature demonstrating a wide range of negative health effects associated with poverty, lower socio-economic status, and with living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Numerous factors have been identified that underlie this association, including but not limited to food insecurity, higher rates of violence, and less access to high quality healthcare. Neighborhood disadvantage is defined by a combination of factors, such as low median income, low education level, crowding, and lack of complete plumbing.
“…by impairing the flexibility by which the brain processes information related to reward, emotion regulation, and cognition.”
The UCLA study included 92 participants – 27 men and 65 women – from the greater Los Angeles area. Demographic and body mass index information was collected, and neighborhood disadvantage was assessed as area deprivation index (ADI) using the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s Neighborhood Atlas. The study showed that poor quality of available foods, increased intake of calories from foods high in trans-fatty acids, and living in environments that do not foster physical activity, all prevalent in disadvantaged neighborhoods, play an important role in one’s mental health, by impairing the flexibility by which the brain processes information related to reward, emotion regulation, and cognition.
The researchers did a detailed analysis of the brain’s cortex to determine how living in a disadvantaged area can change specific areas of the brain that play different roles in cognitive and emotional processes. “We found that neighborhood disadvantage was associated with differences in the fine structure of the cortex of the brain. Some of these differences were linked to higher body mass index and correlated with high intake of the trans-fatty acids found in fried fast food,” said Arpana Gupta, PhD, co-director of the Goodman-Luskin Center and Director of the Neuroimaging Core. “Our results suggest that regions of the brain involved in reward, emotion, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding might be affected by aspects of neighborhood disadvantage that contribute to obesity,” said Gupta, the senior author of the publication. “This highlights the importance of addressing dietary quality issues in disadvantaged neighborhoods to protect brain health.”
“…higher risk of obesity due to the poor quality of available foods, increased intake of calories from foods high in trans-fatty acids, and environments that do not foster physical activity.”
Earlier studies have found that people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are at a higher risk of obesity due to the poor quality of available foods, increased intake of calories from foods high in trans-fatty acids (including French fries, doughnuts and fried chicken), and environments that do not foster physical activity. In the UCLA study, researchers focused on the relationship between the ADI, a validated measure of neighborhood disadvantage, and brain imaging results at four levels of the brain to investigate in more refined detail the connections between neighborhood disadvantage and brain structure. Participants underwent two types of MRI scans that, when analyzed in combination, provide insights into brain structure, signaling and function.
According to the results, worse ADI ratings were associated with connectivity changes between brain regions that are important for social interactions. Other changes occurred in regions involved in reward, emotion regulation, and higher cognitive processes – and these changes appeared to be affected by trans-fatty acid intake. Even though the study only revealed associations and not causative relationships between measures of deprivation, dietary intake and brain features, the findings suggest that factors prevalent in disadvantaged neighborhoods that encourage poor diet and unhealthy weight gain compromise the brain networks involved in reward, emotion regulation, and cognition.
“Identifying the relationship between socioeconomic status, food quality and specific health consequences is the first step in improving nutrition and health for all.”
The role of socioeconomic factors in the current epidemic of non-contagious diseases has not received sufficient attention amid the raging discussions about gut health, inflammatory diets, supplements, probiotics and healthy food. Unhealthy fast foods of low dietary quality are marketed aggressively towards populations suffering from food insecurity, who don’t have the financial means to shop in higher end markets offering healthy, organically-grown foods. After all, taking your family out for dinner at a fast food restaurant costs a less than a fraction of eating in restaurants offering healthy dishes in the affluent neighborhoods of a city. After all, taking your family out for dinner at a fast food restaurant costs a less than a fraction of eating in restaurants offering healthy dishes in the affluent neighborhoods of a city. Identifying the relationship between socioeconomic status, food quality and specific health consequences is the first step in improving nutrition and health for all.