Connecting for health – Do our friends really affect our blood pressure?

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Not only do our friends affect our blood pressure, but our “social connectedness” can influence our levels of stress, how our immune systems respond, and possibly even our susceptibility to chronic disease. Some evidence suggests that the amount of trust we have in our neighbors influences how long we can expect to live – even more indication that our neighborhoods can kill us or preserve us, in ways we do not immediately realize.

Discussion about all this arose at an exciting seminar two weeks ago for about 150 of us, who yearned to understand how our social connectedness can improve our communities’ health. In partnership, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, Bush Foundation’s InCommons Project, and Wilder Research brought together individuals from around the Twin Cities to learn more about the importance of our connections to other people (aka “social capital”), and about what the indicators on social connectedness in Minnesota portend for the future. In previous months, we produced the same seminar in Rochester and in Duluth.

Melanie Ferris, Jane Tigan, and Allison Churilla of Wilder Research framed the issues at these gatherings. They explained that lack of connections constitutes a risk factor for obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes. In addition, as we might expect, isolated people – whether rich or poor, old or young, male or female – report more depression, although the poor and the elderly do report negative impacts of social isolation more often than do other groups.

Fortunately, they noted, the data show that Minnesotans on average stay connected. We have one of the highest rates of volunteering in this country. Two-thirds of us feel that people work together well to improve our communities. Three-quarters of Minnesota students report having a caring adult in their lives. However, while the glass may be two-thirds or three-quarters full, some emptiness still exists, and that emptiness more likely occurs for lower-income residents. (Minnesota Compass contains all this information and more.)

Also positive for Minnesota: the wonderful array of projects honored at the seminar for their entry into the Connect for Health challenge. These included initiatives developed by community groups, large institutions, or even both in combination. They represented different approaches to strengthening social connections to improve the lives and health of people in their communities. (For a list see Connect for Health Challenge.)

To move forward and make a difference, seminar participants noted that we need to build momentum to promote social connectedness. We need to raise awareness of its importance; we need to recognize and celebrate whatever good work takes place to promote positive social connections. As the residents of our communities grow older, the imperative to fight isolation and increase social connectedness grows dramatically.

“It’s not so terribly difficult to get started,” said one participant. “Just step out to welcome someone; build some simple connections in your own apartment building or on your own block.” Connections do, after all, depend on nothing more than one person relating to another. From there, larger networks can accrete – people relating to one another face-to-face and aided by social media. Communities and neighborhoods can promote interaction by creating activities and spaces that bring residents together.

An extra acquaintance or two might add some years to our lives!