Housing crisis may be posing health risk

The stress of living near a foreclosed home may increase a person’s chances of developing high blood pressure, according to research published Monday in Circulation, the American Heart Association’s journal.

While foreclosures are known to drag down the values of neighboring properties, the new research suggests that they can also undermine the health of the neighbors themselves.

The study tracked 1,750 Massachusetts residents from 1987 through 2008 and found that each foreclosure within 100 meters of a person’s home affected neighbors’ systolic blood pressure, the top number in the reading. The neighbors may be worried that nearby foreclosures are hurting the value of their homes or the safety of their communities, and that anxiety can boost blood pressure, the study said.

The increase was not significant enough to present a huge health risk to the people affected, but it suggests that the housing crisis has extended beyond the economy into the public-health arena, said Mariana Arcaya, lead author of the study and a post doctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Population and Development Studies.

“It demonstrates that a phenomenon that we think of as being solely in the financial realm is getting reflected in measured aspects of our physiology,” Arcaya said. “It’s less about how big the increase in blood pressure is and more about the fact that you can put a blood-pressure cuff on a person and see that this is having an effect on their health.”

The research tracked a subgroup of people who are part of a much broader umbrella study that dates back to the 1940s, when researchers signed up Massachusetts residents with the goal of tracking their habits to determine factors that affect cardiovascular health. Every few years, clinicians would assess the enrollees’ health.

In 1971, researchers began tracking the children of the original enrollees as well as their spouses, and Arcaya and fellow researchers from the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Yale University based their own research on that cohort, again drawing from the results of clinical exams. They found that each foreclosure within 100 meters of a person’s home affected the systolic blood pressure by 1.71 millimeters of mercury. As a point of reference, each year of age is associated with a rise of 0.65 millimeters of mercury, so the effect of a foreclosure is on par with three additional years of aging, Arcaya said.

The authors said they used the 100-meter measure because it is the standard length of a block and encompasses about two properties on either side of a house. Various real estate studies also show that that’s the range in which a foreclosure can affect neighboring home prices, Arcaya said.

The study accounted for age, income, education, race, sex and other factors, including whether the participants were taking blood-pressure medications. It also considered alcohol consumption and weight and found that both increase when there are foreclosures nearby. But those two factors alone do not explain the blood pressure phenomenon.

And not all foreclosures are equal.

Homes that lapse into foreclosures but are quickly purchased do not appear to lead to a rise in blood pressure, whereas homes that are seized by banks and stand vacant do, the study said.

Arcaya warned against extrapolating the results to other areas.

“We don’t know how the results would translate to a different setting,” she said. “We’re not sure what the effects would be in very different housing environments.”

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