Health is Wealth
Strong social connections mean better health no matter if you are rich or poor.
People all over the world benefit from having an active social circle, says a Gallup survey which examined the health and social networks of people in 139 countries. Having a network of family and friends that one can turn to in troubled times, researchers found, means better health no matter what one’s age, marital status, educational level, religiosity, or sex. Findings were consistent in rich and poor countries alike.While previous studies—chiefly focused on well-to-do Western nations—have found that social ties are vital to well-being, Santosh Kumar, Ph.D., of the University of Washington, and Lisa Berkman, Ph.D., of Harvard University, and a team of researchers discovered that these effects are evident even in low-income, poverty-stricken countries as well.
After having surveyed 270,000 respondents, including residents in 34 developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 22 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 14 countries in South and Southeast Asia, these findings highlight the risk of social isolation, whether one lives in Nigeria, Haiti, the United States, or Ireland.
“Policymakers should implement policies that promote social capital of the general population and improving social capital should be considered as top intervention for improving public health,” Kumar tells demodirt.com.
The best ways to do so, he suggests, is by “promoting community-led activities, community leadership, and a greater role of non-governmental organizations and civil society [as well as] work-based health promotion activities and programs.”
Why is it so important to implement ways to encourage social connections in the hopes of minimizing isolation?
"People who are socially isolated tend to have more physiological stress, poorer immune function, and a host of biological risk factors," Berkman said in a public statement. "They also often have riskier health behaviors like heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption. And they can have worse access to healthcare."
While having friends and family play a strong part in our social lives is important, our social interactions at work also affect our health.
“Work environments that promote social support among co-workers do have protective effects on health,” Kumar explains. “Prior research has shown that high levels of social support at work are linked to low level of work-related stress and associated mental and physical health problems.”
Kumar and the team also examined the effects of volunteerism, another link that has been previously shown to be a positive influence on health.
Surprisingly, he notes, volunteering did not have as strong an effect as researchers expected.
“The biggest surprise of our study was the lack of strong association between volunteering and health in many countries, which suggests that structural/behavioral dimensions—participation in civic and voluntary group—of social capital are not strongly associated with health,” Kumar says. “The results on volunteerism were weaker than the results on social ties.”
What could account for such unexpected findings?
“It can be due to different meanings of volunteerism in different countries,” he says. “For example, it is quite possible that Indians considered their visit to temple as volunteerism, which in fact is not.”
Future research will focus on in-depth country-level analyses to ascertain why the extent of association between social support and health varies across countries, Kumar says.
“Are there some country-level characteristics/features that can explain the difference in magnitudes of the association?” he adds. “Furthermore, we are also interested in examining the determinants of social networks/supports. And finally, explore whether these associations between social support and health vary by gender and marital status of individuals.”
The benefits of increasing social connectedness and its benefits to health are far-reaching, affecting economic situations and even education.
“Social capital is important not only for non-economic outcomes such as health, rather it also has economic payoffs in terms of reduced poverty and improved education levels,” Kumar concludes. “That is why the World Bank anti-poverty alleviation projects involve increased citizen participation, self-help groups, and community activities.”
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