Built Environment and Depression in Low-Income African Americans and Whites

  • Peter James
    Address correspondence to: Peter James, ScD, Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 401 Park Drive, 3rd Floor West, Boston MA 02215
    Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Channing Division of Network Medicine, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts;
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  • Jaime E. Hart
    Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Channing Division of Network Medicine, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts;
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  • Rachel F. Banay
    Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
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  • Francine Laden
    Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Channing Division of Network Medicine, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts;
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  • Lisa B. Signorello
    Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

    Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program, National Cancer Institute, Rockville, Maryland
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Published:October 05, 2016DOI:


      Urban environments are associated with a higher risk of adverse mental health outcomes; however, it is unclear which specific components of the urban environment drive these associations.


      Using data collected in 2002–2009 from 73,225 low-income, racially diverse individuals across the Southeastern U.S., analyses evaluated the cross-sectional relationship between a walkability index and depression. Walkability was calculated from population density, street connectivity, and destination count in the 1,200-meter area around participants’ homes, and depression was measured using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale for depression symptomatology and questionnaire responses regarding doctor-diagnosed depression and antidepressant use. Data were analyzed in 2015.


      Participants living in neighborhoods with the highest walkability index had 6% higher odds of moderate or greater depression symptoms (score ≥15, 95% CI=0.99, 1.14), 28% higher odds of doctor-diagnosed depression (95% CI=1.20, 1.36), and 16% higher odds of current antidepressant use (95% CI=1.08, 1.25), compared with those in the lowest walkability index. Higher walkability was associated with higher odds of depression symptoms in the most deprived neighborhoods only, whereas walkability was associated with lower odds of depression symptoms in the least deprived neighborhoods.


      Living in a more walkable neighborhood was associated with modestly higher levels of doctor-diagnosed depression and antidepressant use, and walkability was associated with greater depression symptoms in neighborhoods with higher deprivation. Although dense urban environments may provide opportunities for physical activity, they may also increase exposure to noise, air pollution, and social stressors that could increase levels of depression.
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