If we want to protect ourselves from heart disease, we may need to build stronger, more cohesive neighborhoods. For according to a new study, living in a community in which we feel strongly connected to our neighbors is associated with a lower risk of heart attack.
Apparently, feeling a close bond with the people in our immediate community — and being willing to intervene for the common good of that community — builds what psychologists call “neighborhood social cohesion.” And that cohesion may be good, really good, for our hearts.
Past research has focused on the negative impact of neighborhoods on heart disease risk — factors such violence, noise, traffic, poor air quality and the density of fast-food restaurants.
The new study, conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan, is among the first to look at how positive factors affect heart health.
For the study, the researchers followed more than 5,000 U.S. adults over the age of 50 for four years, starting in 2006. Their average age was 70, and most (62 percent) were women — married women, in fact. Seventy percent were white, 17 percent were black and 12 percent were Hispanic.
When the study began, none of the participants had a history of heart disease.
The participants provided detailed information about themselves, including their body-mass index (BMI), their exercise habits, how often they drank alcohol, their emotional health, and their level of education. They were also asked to also describe their perceptions of their neighborhood by rating the following four statements on a one-to-seven scale: “I really feel part of this area,” “If you were in trouble, there are lots of people in this area who would help you,” “Most people in this area can be trusted,” and “Most people in this area are friendly.”
During the four years of the study, 148 of the participants had a heart attack. People who had reported higher levels of neighborhood social cohesion at the start of the study were found to be significantly less likely to be among that group.
Specifically, each unit increase in neighborhood social cohesion reported by the participants on the seven-point scale was associated with a 17 percent reduced risk of heart attack. That association held even after adjusting for other factors, such as marital status, education level, total wealth, exercise habits, depression, personality characteristics (such as optimism) and individual social-support system (a personal support network of family and friends).
Having the social support of family and friends has been consistently linked to better heart health.
Of course, this is an observational study. It does not prove cause-and-effect. And the study has many limitations, including the fact that it only followed people for four years.
But the study does support other research, including a major study conducted in Sweden, that has also found a strong link between a positive neighborhood social climate and a lower incidence of heart disease.
Why would neighborhoods have this impact?
“Perceived neighbourhood social cohesion could be a type of social support that is available in the neighbourhood social environment outside the realm of family and friends,” write the University of Michigan researchers (with British spellings). “Further, this additional type of neighbourhood-level social support may create and reinforce neighbourhood norms. These norms may then impact the behaviour of neighbourhood residents by creating a system of incentives for adopting and maintaining certain [heart-healthy] behaviours.”