Strong social connections key to good physical, mental health: Study

May 23, 2018

By Cheryl Chan, Vancouver Sun |

More than one in four Lower Mainland residents reported feeling weak ties to their communities — a metric associated with poorer physical and mental health, according to a report released Tuesday by the region’s two health authorities.

The report is based on findings of a survey of 33,000 people living in regions served by Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health, focusing on two indicators of social connection: A sense of community belonging and the number of people one can confide in.

It found that 43 per cent of respondents reported low or very low sense of community belonging.

“That’s a number we need to do something about,” said Fraser Health medical health officer Dr. Ingrid Tyler.

Close to 50 per cent say they only have between one to three people to confide in (the report uses four as the threshold), while six per cent reported having no close friends to whom they can talk.

These figures highlight something researchers and health officials have been aware of — that social connection is a key determinant of health, and one that appears to be weakening in the modern era.

“This is consistent with many parts of the world,” said Dr. Réka Gustafson, a medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health. “In modern societies, people move far away from home. We spend a lot of time on screens. There are multiple indications that social connectedness is one of the things that are lost.”

Unlike the more obvious determinants such as physical activity, smoking or alcohol consumption, “social connection is much more complex and harder to put your finger on,” she said.

The report — the latest in a series of reports from the 2013-2014 My Health My Community survey — found women are more likely than men to enjoy a strong sense of community belonging and have more confidantes.

As people age, their sense of community belonging is more likely to grow, jumping from 33 per cent for 19- to 29-year-olds to 77 per cent for people over 70 years old, said the report.

It also found income does not appear linked to community belonging, although people with higher incomes are more likely to report having more close friends.

According to the report, people who have higher levels of social connection are more likely to live healthier lifestyles, such as being more physically active, eating healthier, and having less screen time.

They are also more likely to rate their neighbourhoods higher on built environment features, such as having well-maintained sidewalks, nearby amenities, and access to fruits and vegetables.

Gustafson noted that the findings do not indicate causality, but only provides a “snapshot of an aspect of health” that can be used to assess the health of the population.

The survey will be conducted again in 2018.

Tyler said there are things people can do to improve their social connections, such as volunteering, walking, biking or taking transit, or participating in free community events.

Social connectivity is more complex than what one individual can do, added Gustafson, saying the meaty work falls onto municipalities when they design public spaces, programs or public transportation and on non-governmental organizations that work to bring people together.

“It is what we can do for each other, and what cities or service providers can do to ensure inclusion for users of all abilities, all ages, and all status in Canada whether you are newly arrived a day ago … or you were born here.”

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