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Social Trust Leads To Better Health

Armen Hareyan's picture

The friendly Freddy next door -- the guy that organizes block parties -- probably believes himself to be in good health. As it turns out, he may be right, according to a study that measures how "social capital" affects physical and mental well-being.

"Social trust, sense of belonging and community participation were each significantly associated with health outcomes," the researchers found. Physical health -- as reported by the study participants --"remained significantly associated with social trust" even among twins.

However, social capital -- the factors that add up to a feeling of connection to the community -- did not affect rates of major depression, found the study appearing in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study looked at survey data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the U.S., focusing on 944 sets of twins, all between ages 25 and 74. More than 1,000 of the 1,888 participants said they were either in very good or excellent health.

"We directly compared twins, and found the effect of social trust regardless of genetics and upbringing," said study coauthor Takeo Fujiwara.

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An overwhelming majority of participants -- 95 percent -- perceived an absolute connection between their physical health and social trust, said Fujiwara. He is chief of the Section of Behavioral Science, Department of Health Promotion and Research at the National Institute of Public Health in Japan.

Fujiwara and co-author Ichiro Kawachi, a professor of social epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, say social capital includes factors such as community participation, volunteer work and comfort within a neighborhood..

"This is very encouraging," Fujiwara said. "What society or community can do may change the health of residents, regardless of predisposing factors."

The impact of social capital has been much debated since the publication in 2000 of "Bowling Alone," by Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard. In his landmark work, Putnam warned that individuals were becoming increasingly disconnected from society. But some sociologists question the true impact of social capital.

"The relationship between social capital and health is complex," said Mark LaGory, chairman of the sociology department at University of Alabama at Birmingham. "There are a lot of intervening variables." In lower-income neighborhoods, he said, "social capital, instead of indicating a body of resources people can draw on, represents a body of obligations that others can draw from."

One way of thinking about it: "People that are deeply connected with the local neighborhood are bearing not only their own poverty, but everyone else's [poverty]," LaGory said.