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Violent crime affects children's test scores

June 21, 2010

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Living in a neighborhood where a violent death occurs may harm a child’s ability to think in the days immediately afterward, even if they weren’t a witness, a study from Chicago suggests.

Patrick Sharkey of New York University plotted where more than 6,000 homicides occurred in Chicago between 1994 and 2002. He then tracked how well African-American and Hispanic children from 5 to 17 years old did on standardized reading and vocabulary tests given around the time of a homicide, comparing them to similar children in the same neighborhood who took the tests months before or after homicides.

African-American children tested within a week of a local homicide did significantly worse than children tested at another time. The poorer scores persisted up to nine days after the homicide. Hispanic children did not have different scores, perhaps because the homicide victims were more likely to be African-American than Hispanic, Sharkey wrote.

BOTTOM LINE: African-American children who lived in neighborhoods where homicides had recently occurred scored lower on tests than similar children in their neighborhood who were tested at other times.

CAUTIONS: The study was not designed to determine the long-term consequences of living in a neighborhood where homicides occur.

WHERE TO FIND IT: Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, June 16

Raising soda prices decreases sales

Bumping up the price of soda pushed people away from the sugar-sweetened soft drinks that are blamed for helping to fuel the obesity epidemic, according to a study in a Boston hospital’s cafeteria. Charging significantly more also proved more powerful than an educational campaign on the health benefits of cutting back on soda.

Dr. Jason Block of Brigham and Women’s Hospital led the study in his hospital. In the first phase, the price of a 20-ounce bottle of sweetened soda was hiked from $1.30 to $1.75. The price of diet soda remained the same. Sales of the sweetened beverage went down by 26 percent, as some customers appeared to switch to diet sodas, whose sales shot up 20 percent.

In the second phase of the experiment, the price increase was rolled back before an educational campaign was launched, with signs pitching weight loss as a benefit of spurning soda. But soda consumption didn’t budge until the price increase was reintroduced. Then sales dropped by 18 percent. At neighboring Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, whose cafeteria acted as a comparison, prices were left unchanged and beverage sales didn’t change significantly, ruling out any external force.

The findings are consistent with research showing that substantial taxes on cigarettes and alcohol cut consumption, Block said. Many states, including Massachusetts, are also considering soda taxes as a policy initiative.

BOTTOM LINE: After a substantial increase in the price of sugar-sweetened soda, sales went down. Sales did not change during an educational campaign about soda consumption and weight gain.

CAUTIONS: People who eat in hospital cafeterias may be more health conscious than the general population, so the results of this study may not be widely applicable.

WHAT’S NEXT: The researchers will try the same experiment on college campuses.

WHERE TO FIND IT: American Journal of Public Health, June

ELIZABETH COONEY

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