Could your neighbourhood contribute to your chances of developing diabetes?

by Mark Benson on September 29, 2012

Could your neighbourhood contribute to your chances of developing diabetes?

A study by scientists in Canada has shed a very interesting light on the matter of diabetes and the fact that your neighbourhood, and more importantly your walkability factor, may well impact upon your chances of developing diabetes in the future. The study took place in Ontario and lasted five years giving scientists a very interesting insight into the lives and times of those in very different neighbourhoods. So what exactly did they find?

The study

The five-year study began in 2005 and focused upon those who did not have diabetes at the time – it did not take into account whether or not they were deemed as high risk regarding the potential development of the condition. The scientist monitored those involved in the study up until 2010 and looked in detail at the life and times of those who developed diabetes over the five-year period. While this is in many ways a very basic study which needs to be looked into in greater detail it has given researchers some food for thought with regards to potential contributing factors to diabetes.

Walkability factor

Each neighbourhood involved in the five-year study was given a walkability score which is simply a review of the neighbourhood, the structure and design of buildings and streets and how this may or may not be conducive to encouraging those living in the area to walk and consider more physical exercise. This walkability factor is related to for example the type of shops in the area, social clubs, schools, activity areas, etc.

What was the basis of the study?

The basis of this particular study in Canada is the fact that obesity is known to be one of the major contributing factors to the development of type II diabetes. Therefore, it is safe to say that those who are encouraged to undertake physical exercise within their neighbourhoods, whether this is deliberate or not, are likely to be less at risk of developing the condition. On the flip side of the coin, those who are not encouraged to undertake physical activity in their neighbourhood, when you bear in mind how much time you spend at home, may well be at greater risk of developing the condition.

This particular study found that those who lived in “low walkability factor” neighbourhoods had a 32% increase in the risk of developing diabetes. This was compared to those living in some of the more high value walkability cities around Canada and does seem to give a definitive link between a neighbourhood’s walkability factor and type II diabetes. But what other conditions could be taken into account?

Social capital

An element that was not taken into consideration regarding the “walkability study” is the fact that many of the so-called low walkability factor neighbourhoods may house those towards the lower end of the income ladder. This lack of social capital may also mean there are fewer facilities in the area which will encourage physical activity, walking in the neighbourhood and even access to more healthy foods could be limited.


Unfortunately the level of income per household does have a major impact upon the quality of the diet of those living there. Therefore if an area is designated as a “low walkability” neighbourhood then scientists do need to look further into the link between income, walkability and diets. There are many different types of food which have been mentioned time and time again as a potential contributing factor towards the development of type II diabetes especially.

Physical activity

There is no doubt that some of the major cities around Canada will offer inhabitants greater access to gyms and other physical activity services. This is obviously a factor which needs to be taken into consideration when looking at the overall picture because while there is seemingly a direct link between the walkability factor of a neighbourhood and type II diabetes, there is also a direct link between physical activity and development of the condition.

Better designed neighbourhoods

Scientists and researchers now believe that governments around the world need to look more closely at the design of specific neighbourhoods, both in low-income, middle-income and high-income areas, to increase the walkability and safety factors for each area. The more people are encouraged to walk as often as possible the healthier they will become and instances of obesity will be lower. This all seems to be a very basic study with very basic conclusions but the reality is that if we start at the bottom, with regards to physical activity, and work our way up in relation to potential contributing factors to diabetes type II then we should reduce the risk of developing the condition for millions of people around the world.

Further research required

While the basis of the walkability study is fairly simple and fairly straightforward it does not look into a number of contributing factors, as mentioned above, which could have a material impact upon the results. However, if nothing else it has highlighted the fact that some neighbourhoods around Canada, and indeed around the world, encourage physical activity and physical exercise while others do not. It will be interesting to see further analysis of future studies to see whether the 32% increase in the risk factor associated with type II diabetes, for those in low walkability areas, is confirmed.


This is a very interesting study into the design and structure of neighbourhoods around Canada, and could indeed be replicated across the world, highlighting the walkability factor and the difference in low-income areas, middle-income areas and high-income areas. The more exercise we are encouraged to participate in, the fewer instances of obesity, which will naturally progress to a reduction in the risk factor associated with developing diabetes for specific individuals.

There are many different factors to consider with regards to diabetes, and especially type II diabetes, and as such there is no “silver bullet” quick cure. However, there do seem to be a number of contributing factors which could be reduced by simple structural changes and relatively low government investment in fitness programs. Will the authorities take notice of this new and interesting study?

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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