Are people in your neighborhood friendly? Is there someone to call on in an emergency? Do you feel part of the area? If your answers are yes, it may be good for more than your immediate well-being. A tight-knit neighborhood community could also have a bearing on your health in later life.
For a recent study, researchers looked at the relationship between “perceived social cohesion” (how people feel about a neighborhood) and the incidence of stroke, and found that there was a big difference in places where residents viewed their area in a favorable light. In fact, social cohesion seemed to be a more important factor than smoking, exercise levels, or depression in predicting whether someone would suffer a stroke.
The authors asked 6,740 people over the age of 50 questions like those above. They then tracked the health of the respondents over four years, including who went on to have a stroke (265 respondents had them). In analyzing the statistics, the researchers controlled for other differences among the subjects, like gender, other chronic illnesses, and wealth.
“Those who reported having the highest perceived neighborhood social cohesion had a 48% reduced risk of stroke compared to those reporting the lowest perceived neighborhood social cohesion,” says Eric Kim, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, who led the study. “In our statistical models, this effect was approximately equivalent to people who were current smokers versus never-smokers.”
Kim adds: “Our research suggests that perceived neighborhood social cohesion shows a protective effect above and beyond traditional stroke risk factors, psychological factors, and individual-level social engagement.”
About 800,000 people suffer a stroke annually in the U.S., leading to health care costs totaling $25.2 billion.
Kim was inspired to do the study, which was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, by an NPR piece about tight-knit communities being better able to survive crises. It suggested that social systems could be as important as physical systems in the wake of hurricanes and heat waves.
Kim says health discussions tend to prioritize personal factors, like how much we exercise and what we eat. But one’s outside environment, from levels of noise and litter, to the incidence of street violence, can also be important. We might be “detracting focus and responsibility away from stressors and resilience factors originating at higher levels, such as the neighborhood,” he says.