Violent crime can break hearts, literally, for those even in safest neighborhoods

Research shows Chicago residents in low-crime areas saw significant increases in blood pressure when violent crime increased in the city.

CHICAGO — Watching TV on her couch in a cozy house in a safe neighborhood, a woman starts to suffer physical damage to her heart following a stabbing on a dark street miles away.

This isn’t an X-Files rerun, but the current reality suggested by new research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions. The recent study of 53,402 Chicago residents shows people living in low-crime areas experienced significant increases in blood pressure that corresponded with spikes in violent crime in dangerous neighborhoods.

Previous research has made it known that high-crime neighborhoods are often high blood pressure hotspots for those residents. But this latest data sees the effects of violence rippling farther out.

According to the analysis of police and medical records, a 2015 spike in crime in Chicago resulted in a 9 percent increase in odds of high blood pressure for low-crime area residents — a greater increase than residents in violence-prone neighborhoods experienced.

“Those in low-crime areas seemed to be affected more by the crime surge, which is opposite of what we thought we’d find,” lead study author Dr. Elizabeth Tung told Medscape. “[For residents of high crime neighborhoods] stress is already there, whereas it was a new stressor for those living in relatively safer neighborhoods. The news was also broadcast across the city, but those in high-crime neighborhoods already knew it was happening and are constantly affected by those things. So there was kind of this exponentiation of fear even in the safer areas.”

As expected, the research did confirm that more dangerous communities have greater rates of high blood pressure overall (36.5 percent) compared with relatively safer communities (22.5 percent). But the unexpected findings on low crime area blood pressure spikes added new information to a growing body of research that Tung and colleagues have been building on the indirect health effects of violent crime.

According to one earlier study Tung led, such other effects include safety concerns keeping high-crime area residents from getting blood pressure medication or other prescriptions and from accessing healthy food.

“People reporting poor neighborhood safety were less likely to have large grocers, pharmacies, and fitness resources within one mile from home,” the authors wrote.  “Even among those who did have resources within one mile from home, a prior experience of neighborhood crime was associated with bypassing pharmacies.”

As a resident of Chicago immersed in this area of research, Tung, while surprised, didn’t seem entirely shocked by the new findings of violence spiking the blood pressure of people outside of danger zones.

“I saw anecdotal evidence of this,” she said in an AHA news release. “I had friends living in low-crime neighborhoods who were extremely anxious about rising crime rates in the city. Crime, and particularly violent crime, is a unique stressor because people prioritize safety. 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.”

Tung and her fellow researchers said they plan to continue to dig deeper in upcoming studies.