Many factors influence your risk of a heart attack. While some are obvious—what you eat, how often you exercise—others are more subtle. Like the neighborhood you choose—or are forced—to live in. A new, large-scale study of people over 50 finds feeling comfortable with your neighbors lowers the odds of suffering a heart attack. While previous research has linked living in tough neighborhoods with poorer health, this study suggests friendly surroundings can actually have a protective effect. Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, a research team led by University of Michigan psychologist Eric Kim explored the impact of "neighborhood social cohesion," which it describes as "the perceived degree of connectedness between and among neighbors, and their willingness to intervene for the common good."
While previous research has linked living in tough neighborhoods with poorer health, this study suggests friendly surroundings can actually have a protective effect.
This can be measured, they add, by "the degree to which a resident feels secure, feels connected to the area, and trusts its inhabitants." Using data from the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study, Kim and his colleagues tracked the health of 5,276 Americans over four years. All were older adults with no history of heart disease. In 2006, when their average age was 70, participants filled out a questionnaire, which included detailed demographic information, including their BMI, exercise regimen, emotional health, and level of education. They also described their perceptions of their neighborhood. On a one-to-seven scale, they responded positively or negatively to statements such as "I really feel part of this area," and "Most people in this area can be trusted."
The researchers then checked back four years later to see who among them had suffered heart attacks. They found that the risk of one occurring was significantly reduced for those who saw their neighborhoods as warm and welcoming. What's more, this association persisted even after adjusting for various behavioral and biological factors known to impact heart health. While those who felt moderately comfortable in their neighborhood had a lower heart attack risk than those who felt uncomfortable or unsafe, the researchers found no additional protection for those who felt extremely good about their local surroundings. The key seems to be living in an area that meets a certain threshold of social cohesion that enables you to relax.
The researchers aren't sure of the precise mechanisms that produce this effect, but they note previous research has linked better cardiovascular health with "greater perceived social support." While that can obviously mean friends and family, they note it can also encompass the social environment of one's neighborhood.
The results suggest that when retirees move to a smaller house or a senior community, they'd be wise to consider factors other than price and location. Talk to the people who will be your neighbors. Do they seem caring? Do you feel like you'd fit in? If so, you might just save yourself a trip to the emergency room.