The health and healing power of the community
There are unexpected “nutrients” in life – certain experiences and habits that provide essential support to the mind and body and produce marked improvements in the way we think, feel and move as we age.
Social determinants of health are aspects of everyday life that affect our health. They range from intuitive components like economic status to less obvious determinants like community.
In their 1999 book Social Determinants of Health, Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson provide scientific evidence to support this additional dimension of well-being. They found that poverty alone does not explain health differences. “When people change their social and cultural environment,” the authors write, “their disease risks change.”
What does this mean for everyday people trying to improve their own health and well-being? Access to medical care, screening and health screenings are only part of the story. A person’s social and cultural environment—their community—also affects their physical and mental health. Here are five research-backed ways to unlock health benefits in the community.
Maintain ties with family and friends
Social ties are at the heart of any community and can help prevent age-related cognitive decline, but which social ties are most important? Data collected as part of the Longitudinal Survey of Ageing, Health and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) initiative was helpful in investigating this question. The data measured cognitive scores using immediate recall, delayed recall, and agility, while also measuring five types of social connections — spouse, children, other relatives, friends, and volunteering — based on participants’ confidante lists (maximum of seven).
In a 2021 study, researchers modeled the SHARE data to examine five types of social structure:
- Friend-Enhanced: Listed friends as a social network. May or may not quote relatives. Less likely to quote a spouse. Usually zero to 2 children. Rather voluntarily.
- Close-family: Listed family as a social network. Married with at least one child. Less likely to quote friends or other relatives. Less voluntary.
- Family Poor: Listed relatives as a social network. Less likely to have a spouse or children. Less likely to quote friends.
- Multiple Binding: Listed relatives, family and friends. Probably names a spouse, has many children, and is a volunteer.
- Family kingdom: Listed relatives and family. Probably names a spouse and has 1 to 2 children. Less likely to quote friends or volunteers.
Participants in the multi-tie group experienced less cognitive decline than those in other groups on all measures, suggesting that diverse connections may be key to staying fit as we age. The friend-enhanced and family-rich networks also resulted in advantages compared to closely related or family-poor groups.
There’s more than one way to access the cognition-based benefits of community, which is good news for older adults whose family ties may already be solidified. While a diverse social network of family and friends is the gold standard, an augmented social network of friends can be built at any time and offers health benefits.
The SHARE study found that volunteering in two out of three community groups is most likely to help improve cognitive decline. Other studies have looked at volunteering alone and found a good reason to go to your local soup kitchen or community center.
In addition to the cognition-based benefits of an expanded social network, volunteering is associated with a reduction in high blood pressure. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can damage arterial walls and lead to stroke or heart disease, two major causes of morbidity.
One study looked at Americans age 50 and older and took baseline blood pressure readings from those who had volunteered more than 200 hours in the previous year and those who had not. The study found that the people who volunteered were significantly less likely to develop high blood pressure over the next four years.
Discover alternative ways of life
Retirement homes have long been a possible form of housing for older adults, while group homes are popular with young adults. However, multi-generational living is currently experiencing a revival through targeted forms of housing such as co-housing and family multi-generational living. Multigenerational communities can help delay age-related cognitive decline by increasing an individual’s access to a diverse and multilevel social network.
Additionally, cohousing represents a unique model that allows Americans to live in a conscious multigenerational community without sacrificing the independence of the single family home. The mental health benefits of these communities have been highlighted during the COVID-19 phase of isolation, with residents of shared accommodation reporting lower levels of anxiety, depression and self-destructive coping than their peers outside of the intentional communities. Several studies have also reported an association with improved physical health, although more research needs to be done to confirm these findings.
It is unclear whether multigenerational family living has a positive effect on older people’s health compared to living with a partner. However, seniors living alone tend to subjectively experience poorer health status and show poorer health outcomes.
Children growing up in multigenerational homes demonstrate improved cognitive function, possibly due to the stronger bonds formed between young children and their parents. In addition, financial benefits and the development of a village atmosphere can reduce the burden of isolated childrearing on young families.
Join a social group
An excellent way to build a community of friends and advance into either the multi-bond or extended friends social categories is to join a social group. This is particularly important for retired people, as an important source of social cohesion and cognitive complexity can be lost when people leave their jobs.
A study of English pensioners found that participants who remained actively involved in two social groups after retirement faced a 2 percent risk of death in the first six years of retirement. In participants who retired with two social groups but maintained none, the mortality rate rose to as high as 12 percent. The relationship was linear: for every group that was lost in the first year of retirement, a participant was likely to have a 10 percent lower quality of life at follow-up six years later.
The importance of social groups goes beyond the health of retirees. Stroke survivors’ resilience has been linked to the number of social groups they were in before a stroke, while people with a brain injury are less likely to experience post-traumatic symptoms if they join a social group after their injury. Additionally, college students who belong to multiple social groups have better mental health outcomes and higher resilience.
Gardening is a time-honored tradition known for keeping people active and outdoors. Community gardening is seen as an upgrade in many circles. In addition to the physical benefits of gardening, those who garden in community report an improved sense of well-being, resilience, and optimism. For people who don’t live near a community garden, resources to get started and funding options to support their start have sprung up.
There are many ways to tap into your community as a resource for health. What works best is often personal and depends on one’s interests and inclinations. If your community is lacking and the options available are not a good fit, you are not alone and you are not without options. You can be the one to take that first step by starting a book club, exploring shared homes, or spearheading a garden in our own community.