August 20, 2014

WHICH REQUIRES A NEIGHBORHOOD:

Always Talk to Strangers : People who know and trust their neighbors are less likely to have heart attacks. New research builds on the understated health benefits of a sense of belonging and community. (JAMES HAMBLIN, AUG 19 2014, The Atlantic)

Social connection at the neighborhood level has long been known to be associated with good mental health, and some aspects of physical health. But this is the first study to look specifically at neighborhood social cohesion and heart attacks, which hit more than 700,000 Americans every year and cost everyone billions of dollars.

"There's evidence suggesting that negative factors of the neighborhood, things like density of fast food outlets, violence, noise, and poor air quality impact health," lead researcher Eric Kim, a psychologist in his final year of doctoral work at the University of Michigan, told me. I'd add broken windows. One 2003 study found that "boarded-up housing" predicts high rates of gonorrhea in a neighborhood, as well as premature death due to cancer or complications of diabetes. (And murder.) More recently, researchers from University of Pennsylvania looked at the health detriments associated with vacant land. By their understanding, abandoned buildings lead to isolation and erosion of social relationships, mutual trust, and collective efficacy, which leads to poor physical health.

Kim's team is focusing on the other side of things: the positive elements of a neighborhood that "might perhaps be protective or even enhancing of health." For a young scientist, Kim is precociously well versed in the language of hedging.

The study du jour, published in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, is based on assessments of social connectedness in 5276 adults in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The subjects rated how strongly they agreed with the following four prompts:

"I really feel part of this area."

"If [I] were in trouble, there are lots of people in this area who would help."

"Most people in this area can be trusted."

"Most people in this area are friendly."

The responses landed the participants on a seven-point Likert scale. And then they were followed. Four years later, 148 of them had experienced heart attacks.

"On the seven-point scale," Kim explained, "each unit of increase in neighborhood social cohesion was associated with a 17 percent reduced risk of heart attacks."

"If you compare the people who had the most versus the least neighborhood social cohesion," Kim continued, "they had a 67 percent reduced risk of heart attacks."

But does it really matter if you feel connected in your community, as long as you have relationships and connectedness somewhere? (Like, on the Internet?)

Rare among studies of its kind, Kim and colleagues controlled for social connectedness at the individual level. "We also controlled for dispositional factors," he said, "thinking that perhaps optimistic people might think that they are more socially connected." The survey included measures of optimism, and the analysis also accounted for things like age, race, income, marital status, education, mental health, and known risk factors for heart attacks like diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.
Posted by at August 20, 2014 1:25 PM
  
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