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Cities, Public Health

How city and urban living affect our ability to cope with stress

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More than half the world’s population now lives in urban settings, and by 2050 the percentage is expected to rise to 70%. Because cities will be home to so many, it’s essential to better understand the health benefits and risks of urban living.

A 2010 study by the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany and McGill University in Canada, published in the journal Nature, “City Living and Urban Upbringing Affect Neural Social Stress Processing in Humans,” used computerized stress tests and MRI scans, coupled with biological data on subjects’ geographical histories to determine the impacts of living in cities on the brain’s processes for dealing with stress.

Results of the study included:

  • Meta-analysis of previous studies show that city dwellers have a 21% greater risk for anxiety disorders and a 39% increased likelihood of mood disorders.
  • MRI scans showed that increased exposure to urban environments was associated with increased activity in the brain’s amygdala region, which is involved in emotions such as fear and the release of stress-related hormones.
  • For those who lived in cities for the first 15 years of life, the MRI showed increased activity in the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, which plays a role in regulating the amygdala region of the brain. Those raised in the city are thus more likely to have a permanently raised sensitivity to stress than those who moved there later in life.

While there are limitations to the study, including its small size, the researchers state that its findings “reveal neural effects of urban upbringing and habitation on social stress processing in humans.”

Tags: mental health, cognition

    Writer: | Last updated: August 29, 2011

    Citation: Lederbogen, Florian; et al. "City Living and Urban Upbringing Affect Neural Social Stress Processing in Humans," Nature, May 2011.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the study titled "City Living and Urban Upbringing Affect Neural Social Stress Processing in Humans."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the study-related Time magazine article titled "Stressed in the City: How Urban Life May Change Your Brain."

    1. Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
    2. Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. (for example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties [e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members] and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.