Stress of violent crime spikes BP rates, even in safe neighborhoods

Climbing rates of violent crime could trigger blood pressure (BP) spikes within nearby communities—particularly among individuals living in what are considered “safe” neighborhoods—according to a study of 50,000 adults living in Chicago.

The study, slated for presentation Nov. 10 at the American Heart Association’s annual Scientific Sessions, explored the relationship between crime rates in Chicago and the BP patterns of the city’s residents. Chicago experienced a peak in violent crime, defined by the FBI as murder, rape, robbery or assault, in 2016 before rates began to fall the following year.

Lead study author Elizabeth Tung, MD, and colleagues focused on that period in 2016 for their work. According to a release, they used data from the Chicago Police Data Portal to match violent crime rates to the home addresses of patients from nearby outpatient clinics. A total of 53,402 adults, 54 percent black and 64 percent women, were enrolled in the study.

Unsurprisingly, Tung said, she and her colleagues found that low-crime communities had lower rates of high blood pressure (22.5 percent) compared to higher-crime communities (36.5 percent). Across the general study population, rising crime rates were linked to a 3 percent increased risk of developing higher blood pressure, suggesting the stress associated with violent crime has “far-reaching effects.”

What Tung and her team didn’t expect was a separation in crime-related BP spikes between neighborhoods. Compared to those living in crime-ridden areas, people living in safe neighborhoods saw 9 percent higher odds of increased blood pressure.

“I saw anecdotal evidence of this,” Tung, an instructor of medicine at the University of Chicago, said in the release. “I had friends living in low-crime neighborhoods who were extremely anxious about rising crime rates in the city.”

That anxiety could affect health outcomes if, for example, a patient felt unsafe walking to their local pharmacy and missed several doses of their prescription medication, skewing their treatment, she said.

“Crime, and particularly violent crime, is a unique stressor because people prioritize safety,” Tung said. “Safety is second in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but in many ways, it can get in the way of more basic needs, like access to healthy food.”