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Social networks and volunteering linked with good health worldwide

February 28, 2012

Much research has indicated that strong social networks and volunteering are linked with good health. But most of that research was done in western or developed countries. Now, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers and colleagues have found that the association holds true the world over.

The study was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine on January 23, 2012. Lead author of the study was Santosh Kumar of the University of Washington.“Based on these findings, it appears that the relationship between social isolation and poor health is a nearly universal phenomenon,” said Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and Cabot Professor of Public Policy, Epidemiology, and Global Health and Population at HSPH and senior author of the study. “We never knew before whether this was a particularly ‘Western’ phenomenon or would hold true only for wealthy industrialized countries. These findings help us understand that these links exist across the globe from the richest to the poorest countries.”

From India to Ireland, from Afghanistan to Argentina, individuals in the study with stronger social ties were more likely to be satisfied with their personal health—even after the researchers accounted for other factors that can affect health outcomes.

health satisfaction graph (scatterplot2162012.gif)

Source: Gallup

Using data from the Gallup World Poll gathered between 2005 and 2009, the researchers analyzed information from 271,642 people between the ages of 15 and 75 in 139 countries—a representative sample of 95% of the world’s adult population.

The researchers found that, regardless of the region or the national income level, social support and volunteering were positively associated with health, even after they factored in age, education, gender, and two other forms of social contact that have previously shown strong associations with health—marital status and religiosity.

They found that people with strong social support from friends and family are twice as likely to report being healthy as those who lack such support. The benefit from volunteering is apparently lower, but still significant; those who said they volunteered during the previous month had 14% higher odds of reporting good health than those who didn’t volunteer.

health satisfaction table (sshealthtable1.gif)

The researchers say it’s unclear if social support and volunteering actually lead to better health, or if it’s the other way around. They acknowledge that, if people are in good health, they may be more likely to spend time with friends and family and volunteer—meaning that good health leads to stronger social ties, as opposed to the other way around. Further evidence is necessary, they write, “to disentangle the role of reverse causality.”

As for public health implications, the study suggests “that we should be identifying and implementing a range of social and economic policies that sustain families, intergenerational relations, and communities,” Berkman said.

Other HSPH authors included Maria Rocio Calvo Vilches, a research fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, and Mauricio Avendano Pabon, adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health.

Read Gallup article

–Karen Feldscher

photo: Rosii Floreak