The hidden risk factor for your health

Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and obesity are important risk factors for your health. However there is a mountain of evidence revealing that people who lack supportive personal and social connections are actually at greater risk of developing disease than individuals who have a strong support system.

Sound interesting?  Let’s go back to 1961 in the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a village in the Poconos inhabited by a community of Italian immigrants.  The town was remote with few outsiders. The men and women  all worked long hours at either the stone quarry or the blouse factory to earn enough to send their kids to college.

At the end of the work day neighbors strolled along the street stopping to visit before heading home to change for dinner.  Dinner consisted of pasta, sausage, and meatballs fried in lard and prepared in communal kitchens.  The entire community gathered for this nightly ritual where everyone experienced the warmth of belonging.  Most lived in multigenerational homes, and everyone attended church together.

Stewart Wolf, M.D., a professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, had a summer home not far from Roseto and while visiting with the local doctor learned that heart disease seemed less prevalent in Roseto than in the nearby towns. This was during the era of the epidemic of heart attacks as number one cause of death in men under 65.  Dr. Wolf began research and discovered that the heart attack rate in Roseto was half the national average and nearly zero for men under 65.

Why were the people of Roseto seemingly more immune to heart disease?  Dr. Wolf and his team were determined to find out. No stone was left unturned.  11 dieticians studied food choices and preparation methods only to learn that 41 percent of Rosetan’s calories came from “bad” fats since they couldn’t afford healthier options!  Many smoked, were sedentary and obese.

The team studied the water supply, genetics, geography and available healthcare and finally concluded that a supportive, nurturing community was a better barometer for a healthy heart than cholesterol levels or tobacco use.

As the years passed, Dr. Wolf continued to follow Roseto. The next generation moved into single family homes adopting the “every man for himself” attitude and the close knit communal ties loosened.  By the end of the 1970’s, the number of fatal heart attacks in Roseto increased to the national average.

Strong communal and interpersonal connections prove to be a significant factor in strengthening good health.  Dr. Wolf recognized that individuals who feel isolated or excluded are often overwhelmed by daily life challenges triggering repeated stress responses in the body. When we feel safe and supported, our bodies are free to relax  -which in turn positively impacts the body’s physiology leading to enhanced immune function and better health.

Here are a few action steps toward building more social/personal support:

  • Ask for help –  from friends, family and co-workers – the acts of giving and receiving are powerful connectors!
  • Offer a helping hand –  a kind word, a smile, or a simple gesture nourishes our souls –  explore volunteer opportunities.
  • Seek out healthy relationships based on what feels warm and open – social contact alone may do more harm than good –  being surrounded by people who judge, criticize and bully leads to more stress  – so pay attention to your intuition as you connect with others.

 Our survival depends on our collective abilities,

not our individual minds.

John Cacioppo, Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago.

And, as always, remember: You hold the key – to your own health and happiness!!