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Signs of depression spreading through a community

A Northeastern researcher working in partnership with researchers from Tufts University found that Boston’s Puerto Rican community suffers from symptoms of clinical depression in higher proportion than non-Hispanics or other segments of the Hispanic population.

Luis Falcon, vice provost for graduate education, a lead researcher in a five-year study of health disparities in the local Puerto Rican community, reports in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Aging and Mental Health that two out of five respondents in the study of more than 1,400 Puerto Ricans showed symptoms of clinical depression.

“The article looks at symptoms of depression and stress as it relates to life stressors, and examines [whether] the availability of social support makes a difference,” said Falcon, whose academic discipline is sociology.

His findings attempt to analyze why his subjects, ages 45 to 75, were more susceptible to mood disorders, anxiety and trauma-related disorders—conditions Boston’s Puerto Rican community suffer from in greater numbers than other Hispanic and non-Hispanic groups, he said.

His research found that the most depressed respondents lived in relative social isolation, within small social networks.

The stressors and hardships identified in the study included multiple negative life events, poor health status and loss of social contacts, Falcon said. He concludes in his journal article that better connectedness to social networks could provide key emotional support, and buffer against some of the effects of negative life events.

Falcon’s research is part of an ongoing collaboration with the Boston Puerto Rican Center for Population Health and Health Disparities, located at Tufts University. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the center aims to reduce or eliminate health disparities among Puerto Ricans.

Falcon has been studying Boston’s Puerto Rican population since 2003, trying to assess conditions contributing to health disparities. He has recently begun to examine the role of the environment in health.

“Most of the people we surveyed are renters who don’t own their own homes, and tend to live in congested areas that are not conducive to physical activity because of lack of open space or fear of crime.” Falcon said. “There is growing evidence that the walkability of a neighborhood correlates to a person’s physical health and health conditions such as obesity and depression.”

In the next phase of the project, Falcon will work with associate professors of health science Alisa Lincoln and Carmen Sceppa and senior scientist Irina Todorova to analyze the high incidence of diabetes and heart disease, and the impact of low physical activity among the study group.

“This is truly interdisciplinary work,” Falcon said. “We have a rich data set and I’m hopeful that many more interesting findings will be forthcoming.”

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