Is living in a community good for your health?
It’s a question which has gained currency again as an epidemic of loneliness and tiny, isolated living quarters sweeps the nation, fueled by social media’s illusion of connection and the high cost of housing, and manifested in a growing number of stress-related diseases. Numerous medical studies have underscored the benefits of long-term relationships in nurturing the health of both partners, but the most comprehensive of all the “healthy communities” studies dates back some 50 years.
The study, entitled “The Roseto Effect,: A 50-Year Comparison of Mortality Rates” and written up in the American Journal of Public Health in August, 1992, is a longitudinal look at how a closely knit, caring community experienced a documented, decades-long reduced rate of heart disease and other stress related illnesses. It is meticulously measured medical proof of the health benefits of living in a thriving , connected and caring community over a generation.
Roseto, Pennsylvania, settled by Italian immigrants from Southern Italy in 1882, started as a closely knit community which emphasized family cohesion and intergenerational support. The study, conducted by a team headed by Dr. Stewart Wolf, the Chairman of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma, and affirmed by major universities and medical journals in the United States and abroad, demonstrated conclusively that a socially cohesive community, where elders were revered and people were nurtured by others, recorded heart & stress related diseases far below the national average and the averages of neighboring towns, without such connection among community members.
Roseto became a “living laboratory” for social cohesion and a model for healthy communities, demonstrating that neighborliness was good BOTH for the body politic AND the human body. In an updated report on the Roseto Effect out of the University of Chicago entitled “The Power of the Clan: 1935-1984”, the clear finding was that “mutual respect and cooperation contributed to the health and welfare of the community and its inhabitants.”
Like a goal of the Bay Area’s pioneering affordable/sustainable community developer Thriving Communities (www.thrivingcommunities.com), the culture of cooperation prevailed in Roseto, “ and radiated a kind of joyous team spirit as they celebrated festivals and family landmarks” together. “People are nourished by other people,” Dr. Wolf found. In short, the studies found, people are good for other people’s health, especially when living in a caring, family-like community.
Wolf’s medical conclusions went even further: “The characteristics of a tight knight community are better predictors of healthy hearts than low levels of serum cholestoral or tobacco use,” he wrote. “We looked at the social structure of healthy communities and found that they are characterized by stability and predictability. We also found that there were higher stress-related illnesses in isolated people; that the sense of being supported, reduced stress.”
In 1999, the same year the Napa Valley based company Healthy Buildings USA was formed (www.hbusa.net), the British Medical Journal reinforced Dr. Wolf’s cornerstone conclusions about the value of community and socialization upon good health by finding that “ people who perceive themselves as socially isolated, are two to five times at greater risk for premature death for all causes.” The British Journal went on to report that “social and productive pursuits are equivalent to and independent of the merits of exercise.” Imagine that: living in community—a real, thriving community populated by real human beings, not a virtual on-line community—is at least as good for your health as exercise! So, unplug your headphones, and talk to your neighbor.
Is living in a thriving, nurturing community good for your health? The evidence is clear, long established and well-documented: thriving, socially cohesive and caring communities are medically proven to work for people’s well-being. When you add to that formula a community with a high level of concern over environmental sustainability, respect for nature, careful water use, affordability, respect for fundamental human dignity and compassion for your neighbors, the results may well re-define the “American Dream” for new generations.