I lived for a time in an urban environment where most people walked, shopped and entertained themselves locally. People often sat out on their front porches and stoops and chatted. They all knew each other’s business. Most were hearty “old-timers.” I used to chalk up the “hearty” longevity of my older neighbors to good Old World genes, but new research is saying it’s something more. In fact, there may be something more to heart health for everyone beyond genes, diet and exercise. This heart-health booster is something we don’t think about, and yet there it is, right in front of our noses—if we take steps to get it. And this newly proven secret to heart health and longevity is free and not hard to do—all you have to do is be neighborly.
That’s right—just be neighborly to live longer! Here’s why…
We know that negative aspects of physical environments—noise, traffic and pollution—can harm our health. It’s a no-brainer. Even so, scientists have conducted study after study to prove it. But recently, a study by researchers from the University of Michigan took a different tack. It looked at the impact of positive rather than the negative aspects of neighborhood living. The research team wanted to find out whether feeling part of a community, trusting neighbors and feeling safe had an impact on heart health. They called these feelings about community connections perceived neighborhood social cohesion.
Drawing data from the University of Michigan’s ongoing Health and Retirement Study, the researchers identified 5,276 heart-healthy people and followed them for four years. The average age of these folks was 70. As for the Health and Retirement Study, it’s a large, national program that collects information on health, health-care economics, aging and quality of life in adults older than 50. Information is collected through questionnaires that are sent every two years to the more than 22,000 participants in the program.
So, to measure neighborhood social cohesion, researchers asked the participants how they felt about the area within a 20-minute walk or one-mile radius of their homes. These study participants rated how much they agreed with these four statements…
• 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.
• Most people in this area are friendly.
Depending on how strongly a participant agreed with each statement, he or she was put into one of four groups—low social cohesion, low-to-moderate, moderate-to-high, or high social cohesion.
During the four-year study period, 148 of the participants had heart attacks. The researchers took this information and sliced and diced it with the data they had collected about neighborhood social cohesion and demographic factors (for example, age, sex, race, marital status, education level and income) of their study population.
THE REAL EFFECT OF SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS
When the researchers adjusted data to compensate for the impact of demographic factors on heart attack risk, they found that, compared with people with low neighborhood social cohesion, people with low-to-moderate social cohesion were 34% less likely to have heart attacks and people with the moderate-to-high or high social cohesion were about 45% less likely to have heart attacks.
Those are stunning numbers—you can potentially reduce your risk of heart attack by half by just being neighborly and liking and being involved with where you live.
Although studies have shown that keeping a positive attitude is good for your health, this study is the first to examine how feeling positive about your neighborhood impacts your risk of heart attack. But the results aren’t that surprising, are they? They emphasize the importance of being comfortable, safe and contented in light of what we know about stress and anxiety and heart health. The findings can perhaps be summed up by this proverb: “Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.” When family isn’t close at hand or willing to be supportive, it is a comfort to know that neighbors—people in your community—can provide a safety net for social, emotional and physical needs. And that knowledge, over time, can be a powerful stress reducer.
So you know the results of this study are just common sense, but how many of you live as if you are really at home in your neighborhoods? To boost your ability to live a lower-stress, healthier and longer life from what you can draw from where you live, you might want to review the multiple choice answers from the study above. Give thought to how you feel about the community you live in.
If you don’t already feel connected to your neighborhood, why not get more involved? If neighbors stroll along the street where you live, sit out in front of your house or apartment and chat with them as they pass. Or visit the local coffee shop, but don’t bury your head in a newspaper, book or laptop. Instead, make a point to strike up conversations with other patrons. Attend an “open mike” at a local bar or restaurant where amateur singers and musicians entertain each other and welcome you to perform as well. It’s a festive way to become part of a community. Join a community center, enroll in an adult-education class or become involved with a local charity or civic cause—and the more local, the better. If you make it a goal, you can definitely make more friends and acquaintances in your neighborhood and therefore feel more connected to it.
When you think about it, these are all just examples of being more open-hearted—and now there’s proof that an open heart is a stronger heart.