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Fear of crime may erode physical and mental health

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who are worried about crime in their neighborhood tend to have worse physical and mental health than their peers who aren't as concerned about being crime victims, UK researchers report.

"The study highlights the importance of the neighborhood, the local environment for health," Dr. Mai Stafford of University College London told Reuters Health. "It shows that fear of crime is not just an emotional response."

People who are more afraid of crime aren't necessarily at greater risk of being victimized, Stafford and her team point out. But they were less likely to exercise, see friends, and be involved in social activities, all of which are important to maintaining physical and mental health, the researchers found.

Previous research has linked the fear of crime to worse self-reported mental and physical health. Stafford and her team sought to better understand whether fear might be a causal factor by looking at objective health indicators in 6,777 men and women aged 50 to 75 participating in a long-term study of UK civil servants.

People who reported the most fear of crime were nearly twice as likely to be depressed as those who were the least fearful, the researchers found, and they had a 56-percent greater risk of common mental health disorders.

Those most fearful of crime also had significantly worse physical function, with scores equivalent to those of a person nine years older, and their quality of life was also worse.

More fearful individuals were less likely to engage in vigorous physical exercise, be involved in a variety of social activities, and be in contact with friends.

These relationships remained even after the researchers accounted for the effects of gender, age, and previous physical and mental health.

"Avoidance is one response" to fear of crime, Stafford pointed out in an interview. "People tend to limit their physical activities, to take less exercise, and they also tend to limit their social activities. We already know that those physical and social activities are very important for health."

Taking measures to reduce crime -- for example, improving street lighting and designing neighborhoods for mixed use so there are always some people around -- can also help reduce people's fears, Stafford noted. Law enforcement personnel can also inform people about the real danger of crime, and help launch neighborhood watch programs, "which may be effective in reducing opportunity for criminal activity and residents' sense of vulnerability through shared community action," she and her colleagues conclude.
SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, November 2007.
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