Living Near Bars and Fast Food Restaurants Could Potentially Increase Risk of Heart Failure, Study Finds

But remember: Correlation is not causation.

<p>fotoVoyager / Getty Images</p>

fotoVoyager / Getty Images

Living within walking distance of “ready-to-eat food environments,” such as bars, pubs, and fast-food restaurants, is associated with increased risk for heart failure, according to recent research from the American Heart Association (AHA).

Using data from health records of more than 500,000 UK residents over the course of 12 years, scientists discovered that people who were surrounded by the highest density of these food and drink establishments — 11 or more within 1 kilometer of their homes — appeared to be at 16 percent higher risk for heart failure than their peers with no bars, pubs, and fast-food restaurants within that same range of their homes. (Heart failure, by the way, occurs when the heart muscle is no longer able to pump well enough to supply ample amounts of oxygen-rich blood to the body.)

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Study senior author Lu Qi, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the epidemiology department at Tulane University in New Orleans, said in a press release that since these ready-to-eat food joints usually offer “unhealthy food and drinks” that have been linked to cardiovascular disease, they decided to analyze the potential link.

The connection between our environment and our health

Even if you feel fiercely independent, your surroundings (including your neighborhood, family, friends, and even who or what you follow on social media) have a significant impact on your health, says Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a Warrenton, Virginia-based registered dietitian and diabetes educator.

“When it comes to eating habits, we often adopt the behaviors of those around us,” Thomason says. “If we live in an area that is saturated with fast food and alcohol, it stands to reason that we might be more likely to indulge in these options.”

Using the social determinants of health model, UCLA Health estimates that 50 percent of our health is determined by our zip code, adds Molly Bremer, M.S., RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and the director of Mosaic Nutrition in Washington D.C.

Here’s how the estimated breakdown works:

  • 40 percent: Socioeconomic factors, like education, job status, family support, and income

  • 10 percent: Physical environment, including housing, neighborhood safety, and the built environment

The remaining half is split between wellness behaviors (such as tobacco use, diet and exercise, alcohol use, and sexual activity, at 30 percent) and healthcare (access and quality, at 20 percent).

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But does the fact that we own or rent in a bustling neighborhood that just so happens to have several options for bars or drive-throughs mean that we’re destined to struggle with heart health?

'Correlation does not equal causation'

Take heart: “True, there was an overlapping Venn diagram of people who live near ready-to-eat food joints and poor heart health. However, this doesn’t mean that if you live near ready-to-eat food restaurants, you are doomed to heart failure,” Thomason explains, helping us dive deeper into the study that was published in February 2024 in the AHA’s journal Circulation: Heart Failure.

“Correlation does not equal causation, and that is true in this scenario,” she continues. People of all ages, incomes, geographical locations, and races have heart failure, and living near a fast-food restaurant or pub does not automatically cause this health condition.

<p>Michel Setboun / Getty Images</p> The study, which looked at nearly 13,000 cases of heart failure across a period of 12 years, found that “closer proximity and a greater density of ready-to-eat food outlets were associated with an elevated risk of heart failure.”

Michel Setboun / Getty Images

The study, which looked at nearly 13,000 cases of heart failure across a period of 12 years, found that “closer proximity and a greater density of ready-to-eat food outlets were associated with an elevated risk of heart failure.”

“It’s also important to acknowledge the difficulty of owning or renting property in the U.S. Affordable housing remains an ongoing social justice issue,” Bremer says. Zoning laws, food apartheid, and systemic oppression all contribute to neighborhoods that tend to have access to more “unhealthy” foods.

If you walk through your neighborhood and notice a substantial number of bars, fast-food restaurants, and the like in your midst, you don’t need to start scrolling through Zillow, Thomason and Bremer agree. You can take control of the steering wheel and drive toward health-promoting behaviors. (And you might already be doing them. It’s not like a burger place down the block means that you necessarily eat there every meal of the day, and even dietitians eat fries every so often!)

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Thomason suggests using this research as a reminder to build awareness of how often you find yourself feeling influenced by your environment as a whole. For example, on your commute home, do you realize that it’s often easier to grab dinner via the drive-through versus cooking at home? Or does it feel safer and easier to meet a pal for a drink at a bar rather than going for a walk together? Simply noticing how often you're making choices with your environment top of mind can help you build an awareness to begin to make changes — if they might be health-promoting and doable for the long haul, that is.

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