Researchers at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine have published a study suggesting that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood can not only affect food choices and weight gain but also the very structure of the brain itself.
The study, published in Communications Medicine, explored how factors common in disadvantaged neighborhoods—such as poor food quality, high caloric intake from trans-fatty acids, and a lack of environments conducive to physical activity—affect the brain’s ability to process information related to reward, emotion regulation, and cognition.
While prior research had already established a link between disadvantaged neighborhoods and poor brain health, this study delved into the brain’s cortex to see how specific areas might be impacted by living in a socioeconomically disadvantaged area.
The researchers used MRI scans to look at the brain’s cortex at four different levels, gaining a nuanced understanding of how neighborhood disadvantage can impact brain structure and function.
The study included 92 participants from the greater Los Angeles area, assessing their demographic information, body mass index (BMI), and the disadvantage level of their neighborhoods using the Area Deprivation Index (ADI).
Worse ADI ratings correlated with structural and functional changes in brain regions crucial for social interaction, emotion regulation, and cognition.
Importantly, high intake of trans-fatty acids from fried fast foods seemed to influence these changes.
“These results indicate that the brain regions involved in reward, emotion, and the acquisition of knowledge might be affected by aspects of neighborhood disadvantage contributing to obesity,” said Dr. Arpana Gupta, co-Director of the Goodman-Luskin Center and senior author of the study.
Health and Policy Considerations:
The study’s authors highlight the critical need to address dietary quality issues in disadvantaged neighborhoods as a measure to protect brain health.
Poor food choices exacerbated by the conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods don’t just lead to obesity but may also have a more far-reaching impact on the brain.
The study is limited by its sample size and geographic focus on the greater Los Angeles area.
This groundbreaking study sheds light on the intricate ways in which the conditions of our living environments can have real, measurable impacts not only on our bodies but also on our brains.
As such, the findings call for multi-faceted interventions that focus on improving not just the physical health but also the cognitive and emotional well-being of individuals in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
In summary, this study adds a critical dimension to our understanding of how social determinants of health like neighborhood disadvantage extend their influence to cognitive and emotional well-being, urging policymakers and healthcare providers to take these factors into account when planning interventions.
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The research findings can be found in Communications Medicine.
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