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Luxembourg National Research Fund

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Neighbourhood characteristics as determinants of health



Unhealthy lifestyles – unbalanced diet and physical inactivity – are the main factor in the leading cause of death in the world: cardiometabolic disease. Our socioeconomic environment plays a role in these lifestyle choices. Over a 9-year period, researchers are looking at how socio-economic and physical environmental characteristics of residential neighbourhoods shape our physical activity, nutritional behaviour and cardiometabolic health.

Every year, nearly 4 million deaths in Europe – 45% of all deaths – can be traced back to cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as abdominal fat all contribute to an increased the risk of developing cardiometabolic disease such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Known as “metabolic syndrome”, this cluster of cardiometabolic risk factors, also is a common health condition that affects about a quarter of the adult population in Luxembourg.

Where we live makes a difference

Traditionally, approaches to cardiometabolic disease prevention have focused on the risk factors at the individual level, such as socioeconomic status, knowledge or education. It has been recognised that the environment in which we live also plays a key role in shaping behaviours.

“In the past years, an increasing number of studies have suggested that urban landscape is likely to affect cardiometabolic health of city dwellers. For example, previous studies have found that living in a deprived neighbourhood in term of socioeconomic status and resources – low access to amenities, public transport infrastructure, green space and healthy food stores – is associated with increased risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease,” explains public health nutritionist Marion Tharrey.

The importance of a long-term look

Previously, most research focused on measurement of neighbourhood environment at one point in time, leaving a knowledge gap when it comes to understanding the effects of changes over time and cumulative exposure of neighbourhood characteristics on health. From a public health perspective, a crucial gap to fill to better understand the causal relationship between events: Which variable influences the other one, in this case with a focus on neighbourhood characteristics and cardiovascular health.

Investigating this causal relationship requires the collection of a large amount of data, both on an individual and environmental level, over a long period of time. Strong multidisciplinary collaboration among epidemiologists, public spatial scientists and local stakeholders in public health and urban planning is crucial for success.

Dr Marion Tharrey is a Public health nutritionist at LISER

Focus on changes in cardiometabolic risk factors

With an interdisciplinary approach, public health nutritionist Marion Tharrey explores changes in various cardiometabolic risk factors, dietary patterns, and physical activity in relation to change in residential features.

“I use data from the ORISCAV-LUX survey, a nationwide cardiovascular health monitoring programme in Luxembourg, led by the Luxembourg Institute of Health. This survey includes two waves of data collection from 2007 and 2018 for over 630 adults across the country. For each wave and each participant, we are extracting a large number of environmental, socio-economic, built and natural characteristics of residential neighbourhoods,” Marion explains.

“Collecting all the geospatial data for the two waves of the ORISCAV-LUX study is a challenge for the team! I hope that the results of the project will provide valuable information to support urban planning that promotes cardiometabolic health.”

Dr Marion Tharrey is a Public health nutritionist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) and the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER).


On her research, in one sentence

“The MET’HOOD project explores the relationships between the socio-economic and physical environmental characteristics of residential neighbourhoods, behavioural cardiometabolic risk factors such as diet and physical activity, and the metabolic syndrome, over a nine-year period in Luxembourg.”

On why she became a scientist

“I have always been very sensitive to health and environmental issues of our world and I wanted to find a career path in line with my principles and values. I discovered research by chance during my M.S. in Nutrition & Human Diet sciences at AgroParisTech, the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences. It was fascinating and I knew immediately that it was the career path I wanted to take.”

On what it takes to be a researcher

“Research is a profession where nothing can be taken for granted. You learn to have the curiosity and hindsight to question the norms. It is also a very creative job where you have the freedom to imagine and test hypotheses. Besides, I love the idea that what I am doing is useful for society.”

On mentors with an impact

“My love for research was guided by one of my Master’s professors who took me under his wing and always supported me when I was still a student. A few years later, I had the chance to meet my thesis supervisor, a passionate and inspiring woman, who devoted her career to reduce health inequalities in nutrition.”

On choosing Luxembourg for her research

“It was a happy coincidence! I was looking for a postdoc when the position of research associate for the METHOOD project was published. At that time, I was very interested in the effects of the urban environment on nutrition and health. I was immediately attracted to this project and decided to apply. During the interview I felt a good positive vibe between the members of the team that put me at ease. I have always enjoyed travelling and discovering new cultures, so I was very happy to move to Luxembourg.”

On where she sees herself in 5 years

“In the coming years, I see myself growing as a researcher and continuing to develop my knowledge and expertise in my areas of interest. I wish to contribute to exciting and innovative projects that promote a healthier and more sustainable urban development.”

About Spotlight on Young Researchers

Spotlight on Young Researchers is an annual FNR campaign where we shine a Spotlight on early-career researchers across the world with a connection to Luxembourg. Over 100 features have been published since the first edition in 2016.

Browse them below!