10 Fascinating Health Effects of Urban Living

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April 11th, 2011

More than any other time in human history, people today typically live in major urban centers rather than their suburban or rural counterparts. While many praise city life for its comparatively more vibrant nightlife, museums and art, food and music scenes, there inevitably exists some rather terrible downsides. Crime and violence usually spring to mind first, but more than a few serious public health issues may prove just as culpable (if not more so) in causing injury, illness and death. Though not meant to deter anyone hoping to call a sprawling metropolis home, it does pay to know the potential problems that might walk hand-in-hand with urban living. Please keep in mind that none of the following statements are meant to take the place of expert medical advice.

  1. Increased risk of outbreak: Infectious diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, the plague and myriad others spread much faster in urban environments. Unsurprisingly, this has pretty much everything to do with a condensed population living in close proximity. Europe’s devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in the 14th Century, killing off 30% to 60% of the continent’s population, is probably the most infamous example of this phenomenon. In more contemporary times, the World Health Organization notes the swelling risk of yellow fever in West Africa’s fast-growing urban centers. Considering they increase in population at a rate of around 4% a year — the highest in the world and double than the international average — this stands as a particularly disconcerting scenario.

  2. Stunted mental functions: Urban living comes packaged with a melange of physical, mental and emotional stimuli, and on particularly active days can get more than a smidge overwhelming. Spending enough time in such environments may result in poor impulse control, reduced memory and complete exhaustion — among other lovely things. Scientists attribute this degradation to a distinct lack of nature, as exposure to greenery and other organics holds considerable sway over mental, physical and emotional well-being. Considering more people live in cities than rural areas, such a lack of exposure to the natural world spells out some disconcerting things about humanity’s future. Some metropolitan areas now employ developers and scientists with the hopes of redesigning to allow for much healthier spaces.

  3. The “double burden” of diseases: City dwellers suffer from a heightened risk of both infectious and noninfectious chronic diseases, oftentimes referred to as the “double burden.” This especially holds true in impoverished, squalid neighborhoods whose inhabitants lack adequate health care access as well as regions experiencing exceptionally quick urbanization. Asthma, for example, runs far more rampant in such areas, as many individuals and families end up forced to live in moldy housing. Even beyond diseases, deaths and injuries as a result of work or violence also increase when living in major metropolises. These frequently kill or debilitate victims long before chronic infections or conditions have a chance to take hold.

  4. Increased risk of depression: In addition to blunted mental functions, urbanites may also suffer from depression at a much higher rate. Poverty could especially stoke the metaphorical fires, as do poor working conditions — both of which sadly stand as major facets of city life. Many individuals with no prior history of depressive disorders develop them after further immersion low-income housing and careers. Research on the subject oftentimes turns up mixed results, of course, though few would be surprised if a definitive correlation finally emerges.

  5. Obstructive lung disease ravages the homeless: Air pollution unsurprisingly negatively affects the respiratory systems of pretty much everyone calling an urban area home. Anyone living in or near heavily industrialized regions face a far higher risk of coming down with chronic lung and/or pulmonary issues. Car exhaust, too, isn’t the greatest thing to inhale on a daily basis. But one of the world’s most marginalized demographics especially suffers from the damages of respiratory ailments the most. Obstructive lung disease occurs at a 15% rate in the homeless — double the average in the United States. Bronchitis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are also far more common in this population as well. Cigarette smoking, inadequate nutrition options and exposure to the elements only worsens their health.

  6. Poor water means poor health: No matter the socioeconomic bracket, exposure to a compromised public water supply leads to a health crisis of urban proportions. Of course, poorer areas unable to afford the sanitation technology necessary to lessen the chances of serious or fatal outbreaks suffer the highest risk of a public health nightmare. Whether by natural or man-made means, any sort of contamination to a city’s water supply could spell doom for a much broader population segment than the ones found in rural regions. There’s a reason why officials (or, at least, the few genuinely concerned about humanity) wring their hands over the possibility of bioterrorists directly infiltrating public wells, reservoirs and other major drinking water sources. Beyond that, callous corporations treating lakes and ponds as personal dumping grounds for pollutants and waste infamously make life that much unhealthier for the populace.

  7. Lessened risk of death or injury in a car accident: This probably sounds incredibly bizarre, but city slickers are actually far less likely to die or sustain a serious injury in a car accident than their rural counterparts. In some of the most egregious cases, particularly Wyoming, Montana and Mississippi, the rural death rate sits at double that found in urban areas. While the findings understandably pique their fair share of controversy, this phenomenon is attributed to the generally poorer condition of roads. Passing laws to help prevent such things almost always come packaged with a plethora of public outcry, making it exceptionally difficult to lower the risk across the board.

  8. Improper design of multifamily housing is a cause for great concern: Beyond the comparatively rapid spread of communicable diseases, multifamily housing units also cause serious problems for those concerned about respiratory and pulmonary conditions both temporary and chronic. Depending on its design, some homes may actually trap outdoor air pollutants indoors, making life dangerous and miserable no matter where inhabitants roam. Formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, radon, benzene, nitrogen dioxide and more can all creep inside – assuming they don’t come from within the home itself! Asbestos, lead paint and mold, while not exclusive to urban areas, also pose massive health threats. Once again, poverty-stricken neighborhoods fall victim to squalid, unhealthily-designed housing options far more than those with the money to renovate and restore.

  9. Physical inactivity: Not all instances of obesity or being overweight are caused by physical inactivity — genetics, health and medical issues and diet can play a part in it as well. One cannot assume that all fitting the criteria necessarily incorporate little exercise or proper nutrition into their lifestyles, though sadly such stereotypes unfairly persist. However, in spite of this, the physical inactivity that stems from taking public transportation can (though not always) contribute to weight issues. As one can probably imagine, such health risks arise in developed nations far more often, as those in poorer ones must rely on biking or walking. Individuals concerned with the problems associated with an inactive lifestyle should consider supplementing it by exercising regularly or considering healthier options when going to or from work.

  10. It may be easier to correctly diagnose elderly women in urban areas: Please keep in mind such a statement only comes from one study conducted by the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University, so take such statements as nothing yet definitive. Elderly women on the fringes of urban society typically self-analyze as living with fair to poor health, though in rural areas they’re more likely to suffer from heart disease — at least in Canada. By contrast, the social determinants used when making diagnoses on elderly women in urban zones are far more accurate.

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