Impacts Your Health

If you live in a historic house, it could be contaminated with lead paint or asbestos, leading to lung problems, or worse. Some new houses are also so tightly sealed to be energy efficient, they make it difficult for smoke or other indoor air pollutants to escape.

But it’s not just your house itself that can make you sick — it’s also where it’s located. City dwellers are subject to lung disease from breathing in fine particulates in air pollution and can be more prone to depression and anxiety. Worse, there can even be fluctuations between surrounding neighborhoods themselves. For example, there’s a stark difference in life expectancy for those living in two neighborhoods just a couple of miles apart in Boston — in Back Bay, residents can expect to live to nearly 90. But in Roxbury, life expectancy is less than 60.

With that said, how does where you live, and the house in which you live, affect your overall health?

Inside Your House

Your home could quite literally be making you sick, and older homes can come with the most health risks. One of the most likely problems in a house built before 1978 is exposure to lead, which was used in paint until it was banned in that year. Children are the most likely to be at risk for lead poisoning from handling or consuming peeling paint. Lead exposure can lower IQ and also increase the likelihood of developing attention deficit problems. Lead can also contaminate a home’s water if the home has old lead pipes or lead was used to solder pipe joints.

Asbestos is another hazard that can lurk in homes. The mineral was prized for its insulation and fire-retardant properties, but was discovered to be carcinogenic decades after it was installed in homes and commercial buildings across the country. Inhaling the fibers from asbestos can lead to mesothelioma, a cancer that forms in the lining of the lungs, heart and other organs of the body, and is diagnosed in about 3,000 Americans annually. Smokers exposed to asbestos are more likely to develop lung cancer, too.

Other pollutants in your home can adversely affect your health as well. These include exposure to tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide, and radon, a gas formed by the decay of radon in soils under the house. Exposure to radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

Even many newer homes present indoor air pollution challenges. Increasing energy efficiency can trap pollutants inside rather than ventilating them, causing greater exposure to mold and dust mites. A 2014 study by the University of Exeter Medical School found that the rate of asthma of a home’s occupants correlated directly with its energy efficiency rating

Water quality is also a determinant of health. While quality issues don’t usually rise to the level of the lead found in water in Flint, Michigan, contaminants can include nitrates from farm runoff and metals such as aluminum and copper. Bacteria from overflowing septic tanks, toilets, and floor drains can also cause a host of diseases, such as hepatitis A and salmonella. 

Your Neighborhood and Beyond

Where your house is located can also have an impact on health. Doctors and researchers who study population health look at a variety of factors that influence the health of people in the same geographic area or have similar characteristics. This work can help define and reduce health problems found in specific populations.

Some look at the effects of living on a busy road or living near an airport. For example, noise pollution can impair sleep and make it hard to think, and studies reported in the European Heart Journal found that noise exposure is associated with high blood pressure, heart attacks, and stroke. Those living on busy roads also have a higher chance of being hit by a vehicle than those whose houses are on quiet side streets.

To delve into what makes some neighborhoods healthier than others, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 500 Cities project drilled down to specific neighborhood population characteristics. For example, while health officials in Cleveland knew that about 17% of adults have diabetes, data from the 500 Cities project showed that the rate is much higher in certain census tracts, where up to 37% have diabetes. They are then able to look at lifestyle factors and shape interventions.

The project also compares health between cities and regions of the country. One measure looked at how many women who need mammograms get them. Overall, the rate was 77.7%, but New England women had higher rates of screening, while those in the Mountain West states were less likely to get mammograms. The study found that the highest rate of screening was in Newton, Massachusetts, where nearly 89% of women got screened, while only about 63% went for screenings in Nampa, Idaho. This discrepancy in screenings alone could correlate to the rate of breast cancer between two areas of the country.

Making Lifestyle Changes

All this data doesn’t necessarily mean you have to move to get healthier — making changes in your lifestyle and environment alone can go a long way to staying healthy in your current home. Quitting smoking, losing weight, eating a healthy diet, getting more exercise, and using greener products in your home can all contribute to better health. 

One helpful way to improve your health is to ensure you’re drinking enough water rather than sugary sports drinks. Not only will you be consuming fewer calories, but your dental health will also improve from less exposure to lower pH levels that can break down tooth enamel. 

Even if you’re unable to move, you can make your home more comfortable and inviting, which can improve your mental health. Just cleaning up clutter can make you feel less stressed. Adjust the lighting as well. Brighter light, from the sun or lamps, can also brighten your mood.

When deciding where to live, there are numerous factors to take into consideration, from the size and age of the house to the walkability of the neighborhood to your commute to work. Also keep in mind that where you live also affects your health, from the air you breathe to the lifestyle choices you might make.