The Importance of Community for our Health

Updated: Sep 23




“Blue Zones” are geographic places around the world that are home to higher proportions of centenarians, or people who live to be over 100 years old. Five known regions in the world are considered blue zones: Icaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California [1]. 


Since only about 20-30% of longevity can be accountable to genetics[2], researchers have been aiming to identify lifestyle factors- such as diet, exercise, and happiness levels- that could be helping blue zone residents stay healthier for longer.


Research has identified several lifestyle factors that could contribute to longevity, including eating a primarily plant-based diet, consuming alcohol only in moderation, functional movement as exercise, and getting enough sleep. 


For this article, however, I would like to focus on one Blue Zone lifestyle factor that many of us overlook, especially as the pandemic has been raging: a sense of community. 


Research has found that friends and colleagues influence a person’s health. A study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that people are more likely to be obese if they interact with others who are obese[3].


Similarly, research has found that people are more likely to smoke when surrounded by smokers[4]. In short, your social network can affect certain healthy behaviors, so it’s essential to surround yourself with people whose goals and values are similar to your own. 


Additionally, research supports that social isolation, or aloneness, can lead to significant health burdens, including increased stress and depression. One study found that eating alone was associated with more depressive symptoms among older adults who live alone[5]. This study also concluded that poor social networks were detrimental to a person’s health. 


A related study found that social isolation led to increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system, activated during our body’s “fight or flight” response[6].


Prolonged activation of this system can lead to oxidative stress, which may contribute to a host of health programs, including poor heart outcomes. Although this study was inconclusive, it laid the groundwork for further research to explore this subject in more detail.


While the research of the link between a strong social network and health is in its infancy, one takeaway is already becoming apparent. Having a social network of people united around similar values and goals can improve your health.


Unfortunately, COVID-19 and social distancing have made it hard to take part in our communities, so it is crucial to seek it out as you feel comfortable. 


For me, the beginning of quarantine had me feeling stressed and depressed. I wasn’t seeing my friends as often, and our Zoom calls were weighing on me. I knew it would be helpful for me to meet new people around the causes I care about.


So far, during quarantine, I have joined a virtual book club, joined a professional society, begun attending virtual church services, and have begun working out with Spin Your Axis’s awesome community of badass women. Since doing these things, my stress levels have decreased, and my goals have become clearer. 



References:

  1. Robertson R. Why People in “Blue Zones” Live Longer Than the Rest of the World. Healthline. Published August 29, 2017. Accessed August 4, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/blue-zones

  2. Passarino G, De Rango F, Montesanto A. Human longevity: Genetics or Lifestyle? It takes two to tango. Immun Ageing A. 2016;13. doi:10.1186/s12979-016-0066-z

  3. Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. N Engl J Med. 2007;357(4):370-379. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa066082

  4. Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The collective dynamics of smoking in a large social network. N Engl J Med. 2008;358(21):2249-2258. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa0706154

  5. Sakurai R, Kawai H, Suzuki H, et al. Association of eating alone with depression among older adults living alone: Role of poor social networks. J Epidemiol. Published online April 18, 2020. doi:10.2188/jea.JE20190217

  6. Xia N, Li H. Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Cardiovascular Health. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2018;28(9):837-851. doi:10.1089/ars.2017.7312




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