Regional Health In Focus: Social Connectedness

Social connectedness describes the extent to which people interact with one another, either individually or through groups. Some factors that influence a person’s social connectedness include: number of relationships, strength of relationships, frequency of interaction with family and friends, trust in neighbors, and level of participation in community life.

Not only do our social connections shape who we are, how we feel, and what we do, but they also affect our health in numerous ways. They provide us with emotional support, knowledge about our surroundings, material assistance, and models for habits — both good and bad.

social connectednessResearch on social connectedness shows that changes in our relationships and our sense of belonging have a measurable effect on our physical and mental health, just like other risk factors (like smoking or obesity) do. For example, some studies have shown that people with larger social networks or more social supports have higher cancer survival rates. Others claim that elderly people with close relationships are more physically active.

Although the links between social connectedness and health are often complex and varied, it is clear that our relationships with others play a role in our wellbeing.

Local impact:

According to the 2017 Community Health Survey, 88% of adults in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties say they have at least one close relationship who lives near enough to visit weekly. Sixty-two percent say that they have more than two close relationships, and 37% say they have more than five.

Adults in military households report fewer close relationships living nearby — only 13% report more than five, compared to 43% in households with no military affiliation and 31% in veteran households. This helps explain why, on average, adults in Jefferson County are more likely to report having no or few close relationships nearby than adults in Lewis or St. Lawrence counties.

Men, young adults (ages 18-34), adults older than 75, and adults enrolled in Medicaid are all less likely to report more than five nearby close relationships than other portions of the population.

Social connectedness is a particular concern for the Medicaid population, as only 67% of these adults say their relationships have a positive influence on their health, compared to 83% of all other adults.

Other measures of social connectedness from the Community Health Survey help us learn more about the patterns and social habits of different populations in the North Country. Below are some notable examples:

Family meals...
…are more frequent for those with children in the home, as 81% of adults from households with kids report having 3 or more family meals per week, compared to only 61% of adults from households with no kids. Eating with your family can help strengthen social ties among family members and teach children communication skills, nutrition, and healthy eating habits.
Religious or spiritual activities... Religious or spiritual activities...
…are regularly attended by 49% of adults older than 75, compared to 24% of those between the ages of 18 and 34. These activities are also more common among adults with more education, rising from 25% of those with a high school degree or less to 41% among those with at least a four-year degree.
Walks around the neighborhood... Walks around the neighborhood...
…are less common for adults older than 75, putting these individuals at greater risk of social isolation.5 Nearly two-thirds (60%) of adults with at least a four-year degree say they walk around their neighborhood on a weekly basis, compared to just 42% of other adults.

What can I do to take action?

We can improve social connectedness through both individual and community action. There are also steps that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals can take to help promote social connectedness.

Individuals can…
  • Eat more family meals: Family meals are an opportunity to strengthen ties among family members, improve social skills, add structure to each day, and learn more about nutrition and preparing healthy food.
  • Walk around the neighborhood: Walking around your neighborhood is a great way to get active while also getting to know your neighbors. If you are searching for a new home, consider factors that make a neighborhood more walkable, such as: sidewalks, speed limits, nearby parks, etc.
  • Get involved: Some of the most powerful links between health and social connectedness come from helping others. Consider volunteering or getting involved with organizations helping people in your community.
Communities Can…
  • Plan for walkability: Places where people can get around on foot are healthier, more connected, more prosperous, and more attractive for residents and visitors. Programs like Complete Streets provide a framework for planning to make villages and neighborhoods more walkable.
  • Create accessible public spaces: People are more connected and more active when they have pleasant and accessible public spaces — such as parks, libraries, and community centers — in their neighborhoods.
  • Promote opportunities for community involvement: Interest in community involvement is often frustrated by a lack of information or opportunities. Local government and community groups can increase the visibility of existing opportunities and bring people together to create new ones.
Healthcare Professionals Can…
  • Treat a person’s social relationships as part of their health history and risk profile.
  • Be aware of the stigma surrounding loneliness; lonely patients may be reluctant to identify themselves.
  • Use peer support options where appropriate, like diabetes self-management support groups for people with chronic conditions.
  • Recognize gyms, libraries, and other community hubs as resources for disease treatment and health promotion.
  • Encourage lonely patients to volunteer or connect them with opportunities to become more involved in their communities.

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