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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Childhood asthma is less common in neighborhoods with high economic potential and strong community vitality, new research shows.
"It's nice to be able to look at some positive characteristics of neighborhoods that may protect against asthma," Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta, of Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, one of the researchers on the study, told Reuters Health. "We're always looking at negative characteristics."
While the role of economic and environmental factors in childhood asthma have been studied extensively, there has been very little investigation of how social factors might influence the prevalence of the disease, Gupta and her associates note in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
They previously demonstrated sharp differences in asthma prevalence among Chicago neighborhoods and in the current study looked at whether community characteristics might explain these differences.
The researchers analyzed asthma screening surveys of 45,177 children attending Chicago public schools conducted between 2003 and 2005, and then mapped all of the children into 287 different neighborhoods. They ranked the neighborhoods in four groups based on asthma cases.
They found that neighborhoods with low asthma prevalence had higher scores on the Community Vitality Index, which combines ratings for social capital, economic potential, and community amenities. They also had higher economic potential.
The strongest factor, which remained after the researchers adjusted for the racial makeup of the neighborhoods, was social capital, which measures the degree of civic engagement among residents along with other factors.
The findings point to policy changes at the community level that could help reduce asthma prevalence, Gupta said. "It's not like you're going to be able to go in and give everyone a job, but you can empower people to make positive changes in their neighborhoods," she explained.
The researchers also found, surprisingly, that more stable communities and those that scored higher on measures of neighborhood interaction had a higher prevalence of asthma.
Gupta noted that the neighborhood interaction score was based in part on having a higher percentage of households with at least one member who was not working, as well as a lower percentage of single-person households.
"Although one can understand how these factors may lead to increased interaction, they may also signify crowding and poverty," the investigators point out. And the less-frequent household turnover in more stable households may mean that thorough cleanings occur less often, giving mold and cockroaches a better opportunity to take hold.
SOURCE: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, June 2009.