Relationships matter to your health and your community
Connecting with others is fun and good for your health
Melanie Ferris is a research scientist at Wilder Research and an evaluator of the Connect for Health Challenge. At Wilder Research she works on a broad range of projects, including evaluations and research with programs and initiatives focused on children's mental health, substance use and health promotion. Melanie has a master's in public health degree from the University of Minnesota, School of Public Health, and a bachelor's in biology from Macalester College.
We're also learning that lack of social capital — also called social connectedness — in our communities is bad for our health.
When we are socially connected, good deeds are reciprocated and people help, trust and rely on each other. These relationships not only help us feel emotionally supported, but also play a role in supporting our overall health and well-being. Research has shown that higher levels of perceived social connectedness are associated with lower blood pressure rates, better immune responses and lower levels of stress hormones, all of which contribute to the prevention of chronic disease. Social relationships can also affect our health indirectly. For example, the values and behaviors of friends and family members may influence our own health choices, such as the type of foods we eat or how often we are physically active, and can be sources of emotional support. We may learn new information about how to improve our health while having lunch with coworkers or while talking with our neighbors. Alternatively, groups can form around specific interest areas to take action to influence health policy, such as when parents of students advocate for changes in a school's lunch menu or cycling enthusiasts advocate for improved bike lanes.
So — how do we increase social connectedness in our neighborhoods? At an individual level, it all sounds easy enough. Call your friend. Meet your neighbors. Join a walking group. Yet, as Putnam pointed out, changes in technology, urban sprawl, and other factors make it more difficult to build social connections within neighborhoods. What can communities do to increase social connectedness? That's one of the key questions the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation is trying to answer through its new Connect for Health initiative.
Through the Connect for Health Challenge, up to 20 organizations will receive grants of up to $20,000 to implement strategies to increase social connectedness in low-income communities, and one additional grantee will be awarded up to $100,000 for work focused in this area. By following these projects, we have the potential to learn what works, and what doesn't work, to increase social capital in communities and to learn more about how social capital can be leveraged to improve neighborhood conditions and the health or residents.
While at first glance, it may seem too simplistic to think that we can lower the rates of chronic disease or reduce health care costs simply by finding ways to get residents to connect with one another, it's an easy place to start. So -- if you are part of an organization or business that brings people together, consider ways to make your building space and program activities more welcoming. Or — as an individual — simply get involved by saying hi to the neighbor down the block who never seems to have any visitors, attending a neighborhood meeting or inviting an old friend along to meet up with you and your new buddies. Let's see if we make a difference.
This article first appeared in MinnPost
IN THIS SECTION
Welcome to “Perspectives.” This column provides us with the opportunity to feature experts on a variety of health topics. In this column, Melanie Ferris, Wilder Research, shares what is being learned about the importance of social connections to our overall health.
Executive Director, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation