Study: Environmental Factors Impair Physical Function of Senior Citizens

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Elderly Bay Area residents living in neighborhoods with excessive noise, poor lighting, heavy traffic and limited public transportation access have an increased likelihood of physical function loss, according to a recent study.

The study, published in this month's issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, involved 883 men and women over age 55 in Alameda County, which includes Berkeley, Oakland and 10 other cities.

Jennifer Balfour, the study's lead author and an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said she chose Alameda County because the county has a wide range of urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods.

She said there have been very few studies to look at the effect of neighborhood conditions on physical function, and she hopes to pinpoint why certain problems have such adverse physical consequences.

"Someone in a noisy neighborhood might have had less sleep or be disrupted while reading a book, and that might be a source of frustration or stress," she said.

County residents were asked to rate the severity of six problems in their neighborhood, which included noise, traffic, lighting, public transportation, crime and litter.

They were then asked to rate the amount of difficulty they experienced in completing certain

physical tasks, such as reaching their arms above their shoulders or walking up a flight of stairs.

A year later, the participants were again asked to rate their physical abilities. Residents who had previously cited one neighborhood problem were 50 percent more likely to experience overall physical function loss, and those with multiple neighborhood problems were two and a half times as likely.

Neighborhood problems had an even stronger impact on loss of lower-extremity function, according to the study.

Balfour said elderly citizens who feel confined to their homes because of city problems will have trouble exercising, meeting health needs and buying groceries and medicine.

Excessive noise might be increasingly problematic because it can be experienced both outside and inside the home, she added.

But some elderly Berkeley residents said the city's noise and congestion do not bother them.

"Don't criticize Berkeley," said Berkeley resident Al Benson. "Just get earplugs."

Councilmember Dona Spring agreed that heavy traffic can deter the elderly from leaving their homes and crossing busy streets.

"The number one concern is pedestrian safety in Berkeley," Spring said.

She said automobile speeds must be reduced and that the timing of signal lights should be adjusted so the elderly have ample time to cross streets.

She said she would also like to see senior housing located closer to public transit.

But Lisa Ploss, senior programs administrator for the city of Berkeley, said she is confident the city has made considerable progress toward making elderly residents feel comfortable and safe in the community.

In order to encourage a healthy social environment for seniors, Berkeley's Commission on Aging has worked to provide city-subsidized vouchers for free taxi rides for seniors and vans to provide free transportation to and from senior centers, she said.

The senior centers also organize travel excursions to give seniors an inexpensive opportunity to travel and spend time with others.

"Ending up homebound can be very harmful to one's health," Ploss said.


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