That Vacant House Down the Block Is Harming Your Health

New research from Massachusetts shows people living close to a vacant, foreclosed home tend to have higher blood pressure.
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New research from Massachusetts shows people living close to a vacant, foreclosed home tend to have higher blood pressure.
(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

Smoking cigarettes, excess consumption of salt, a sedentary lifestyle: All increase the risk of developing high blood pressure. Newly published research suggests we can add still another trigger to that toxic mix: Living near a foreclosed property.

Researchers found higher rates of systolic blood pressure in people residing in close proximity to foreclosed homes that reverted to the lender—houses that, in most cases, remained vacant for long stretches.

The study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, finds this effect is partially, but not entirely, due to people in this situation engaging in higher levels of drinking and obesity.

The researchers, led by Mariana Arcaya of the Harvard School of Public Health, also found proximity matters—a lot. They found no association between blood pressure and foreclosures of houses further than 100 meters (about 110 yards) from a person’s home.

The researchers found a link between living near foreclosed homes and increased levels of drinking and obesity. However, neither of those factors "fully explained the effect of proximate foreclosures on their own," they write.

This, they write, suggests “that being ‘singled out,’ or particularly exposed to foreclosure activity compared to other nearby neighbors, puts individuals at risk of health effects, regardless of general economic conditions.”

The study tracked 1,740 Massachusetts residents over more than decade. The research team looked at health data across five waves of the Framingham Heart Survey, focusing on the Framingham Offspring Cohort.

Participants’ health data—including blood pressure and hypertension—was recorded approximately every other year between 1987 and 2008. The researchers also noted their body-mass index (BMI) and self-reported level of drinking.

This information was then matched with foreclosure deed data for those same years. The researchers specifically looked at lender-owned homes, as opposed to those that were quickly resold. These homes “typically sit vacant for extended periods of time,” they note, often “degrading the appearance of a neighborhood.”

The researchers examined health data on participants who lived 100 feet or less from such a home. One hundred feet is “the approximate length of a standard block,” they write. “A 100 meter buffer roughly encompasses two properties on either side of a participant’s home, as well as those directly behind and across the street from it.”

After adjusting for such factors as the city’s overall foreclosure rate and poverty rate, the researchers found living near such a building impacts systolic blood pressure, the top number in a blood pressure reading.

“Each additional foreclosed property located within 100 meters of a participant’s home was associated with an increase in systolic blood pressure of 1.71 mm Hg,” Arcaya and her colleagues write. (More information on what blood pressure readings mean is available at www.heart.org.)

The researchers found a link between living near foreclosed homes and increased levels of drinking and obesity. However, neither of those factors “fully explained the effect of proximate foreclosures on their own,” they write. “There may be an independent effect of proximity to foreclosures not explained by alcohol consumption nor BMI.”

While the reasons behind this phenomenon are not definitively understood, the researchers cite some likely possibilities.

“Individuals personally affected by localized foreclosure activity may perceive their own properties to be less valuable, their streets less attractive or safe, and their neighborhoods to be less stable,” they note. Any or all of those can mean more stress, which can lead to health problems either directly or indirectly (via poor coping methods such as increased drinking).

This data predated the 2008 economic crash, which left many more people living near foreclosed homes. This research suggests they may be at higher risk for high blood pressure than they realize. It also gives policymakers one more reason to find ways to put such homes “back into productive use.”

It seems a vacant home isn’t just an eyesore. It’s also a health threat.

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