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How does our physical environment affect our health?

The Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) has received a 4m grant for the ECOTIP project. In this project researchers will study how our physical environment affects our health. The aim is to find tipping points: at what point is there a real lack of greenery, healthy food or clean air in a neighbourhood?

‘With this population health study we ultimately want to reduce health inequalities in the Netherlands’, says project leader Jessica Kiefte-de Jong. ‘It’s the less wealthy population groups that often develop multiple lifestyle-related conditions such as diabetes, overweight and lung problems.  At the same time these population groups often live in an unfavourable physical environment: a neighbourhood with unhealthy food, air pollution, noise pollution and a lack of nature. All these factors can influence a healthy lifestyle. It can be harder, for example, to make healthy food choices if there are more snack bars nearby than there are supermarkets.’

Tipping point: from healthy to lifestyle diseases

It is not yet clear when exactly you should intervene to prevent this clustering of lifestyle diseases. ‘In the ECOTIP project, we will be looking for tipping points’, Kiefte-de Jong explains. ‘When does a gradual change in the lived environment reach a critical point and does this lead to big changes in lifestyle and health? Important questions here are, for example, whether a minimum amount of greenery is needed in a neighbourhood to keep the population healthy and what the ideal balance is between food suppliers in a neighbourhood. We are also investigating whether the current noise and air pollution limits are sufficient to keep the population healthy.’

Use existing data to find tipping points

The ECOTIP project will use existing data to study these tipping points. The researchers will collect information about lifestyle diseases in the Netherlands and will link this to information about the physical environments in which the diseases occur. The project will use, among others, Health Campus The Hague’s Extramural Leiden Academic Network datawarehouse.

Applied research in the community

As well as researching tipping points, the research team will focus on possible solutions for specific neighbourhoods in the Netherlands. ‘We are conducting research in Leiden, The Hague, Groningen, Rotterdam and Utrecht’, says Kiefte-De Jong. ‘We are looking for neighbourhoods where a lot of gains can be made, neighbourhoods with a very unfavourable physical environment, where many people with multiple lifestyle diseases live.’

The researchers will set to work in these neighbourhoods with policymakers, GPs and social physicians, and citizens. They will look at what would be the most effective policy to promote a healthy lived environment. And how best to support GPs and social physicians in providing care to people with health problems caused by their physical environment. They will also support citizens looking to start a healthy lifestyle.

Citizens can also do their bit to improve their neighbourhood

‘We can point to policymakers and GPs but citizens themselves can also do their bit to improve their neighbourhood’, says Kiefte-de Jong. ‘So we are going to work with citizens in the neighbourhoods to map out their physical environment with a special app and will share ideas on how to improve their lived environment. They can put their heads together with a shopkeeper to figure out a different range of food or create a neighbourhood garden with more greenery. We ultimately want to make citizens more resilient and improve the physical environment and health of the people who live there.’

The LUMC is working with UMC Utrecht, Erasmus MC, Leiden University, UMC Groningen and the University of Groningen on the ECOTIP project. The project has been awarded a grant by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) within the Dutch Research Agenda. Read more about Population Health and Health Campus The Hague.

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