Community is the best medicine

It may become one of the most innovative medical interventions in recent history. It could save lives and save healthcare systems trillions of dollars. It will revamp treatment programs. What is it? A groundbreaking new surgical technique? A miracle drug? No, it’s simply community.

Social interaction is crucial for health and wellbeing. Photo by Helena Lopes via Unsplash.

Now, I know this all sounds a bit grandiose, so let me give you some hard numbers to back-up my claims.

There is mounting evidence that feeling socially connected to family, friends, peers or neighbours is visceral to physical health and mental wellbeing. In fact, a landmark study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues found that having these strong social interactions improves the likelihood of survival by 50%. Hypothetically speaking, this means that by the time 100 people die, there will be 5 more people alive who have robust social relationships than people with weak ones.

Staggeringly, the study also demonstrated that someone with low social interaction has a mortality risk equivalent to someone who smokes 15 cigarettes everyday, but double that of someone with obesity. Another English study of 4000 participants found that participants with a history of depression lowered their risk of depression relapse by 24% if they joined one community group, or by 63% if they joined three groups.

Participation in community groups, like interest groups, promotes mental health. Photo by Guy Kawasaki via Unsplash

The list of studies that conclusively demonstrate that social interaction underpins health goes on and on. Click here if I haven’t furnished you with enough facts yet, and you want to find out more!

 

Okay, so if social connection is a pillar of health, how can we use it to promote health at a population level?

Across the world, doctors are starting to dish out “social prescriptions” which prescribe patients to participate in collective, community activities, which includes choir groups, exercise clubs, hobby groups and art classes, to name a few. Even though the importance of social interaction in health has only been recently established, 1 in 5 GPs in the U.K. regularly give social prescriptions.

 

What have been the large-scale effects of social prescription?

Well, the University of Westminster conducted a review which found that social prescribing resulted in 28% fewer GP visits and 24% Emergency Department admissions, two reductions which translate to enormous cost saving.

 

But, why does social interaction promote health?

Countless studies have demonstrated that social connections influence health behaviour – like exercise, eating well and adherence to prescribed treatments. One review explains that by having meaningful relationships with others, you grow a sense of responsibility to protect their health, in addition to your own.

Social groups, such as families, influence health behaviours, like diet and lifestyle choices. Photo by Jaco Pretorius via Unsplash

For example, becoming a parent may cause you to eat well because you not only wish to set a good example for your child, but in preparing a healthy meal for your family, you incidentally also eat healthily. Alternatively, in a romantic relationship, your partner may encourage you to eat well and exercise because of the care they have for you. Or perhaps you notice a friend who seems a bit down in the dumps lately, and you make an effort to spend more time with them.

In addition to this, having a strong social network imparts a sense of stability and support which can help individuals buffer stress. This in turn has positive physical outcomes, such as reduction in blood pressure, stress hormones and improved immune system activity.

 

The evidence is clear and the jury is in. Social interactions encourage people to become advocates for their own health, as well as that of the people around them. Hopefully, the promotion of connectedness and community will soon become widely known as a key pillar of health and become a mainstay of medical treatment and prevention.