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Can a Friend a Day Keep the Doctor Away?

By Talia Kennedy | June 1, 2008 | 0 comments

There are many clear benefits to having lots of friends and strong community ties. But a recent study suggests that a solid social network may even help prevent heart attacks among low-income people with a history of heart problems.

In a study published earlier this year in Social Science and Medicine, a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Kaiser Permanente, the nonprofit health maintenance organization, examined 35,000 medical records of patients who had been admitted to Northern California hospitals between 1998 and 2002. All of these patients suffered from acute coronary syndrome, a condition characterized by decreased blood flow to the heart.

The researchers found that low-income patients who lived in counties with high “social capital”—meaning high levels of trust and cooperation, and strong community groups—were less likely to suffer another heart attack or recurring chest pains. This was true even after the researchers controlled for many variables, including gender, age, race, ethnicity, and whether the patients had other existing medical problems. What’s more, patients benefited from living in high social capital counties even if they weren’t members of any community groups.

The researchers speculate that tight-knit communities may help disseminate important health information to members, lobby for better local medical resources, and provide stronger social support.

“Health information may flow faster and further in areas where social groups are more plentiful,” says Timothy Brown, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “In addition, the very knowledge that there are social resources for a person to draw upon, when in need, may have positive benefits.”

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