Being a better neighbor linked to better heart health

Be nice to your neighbors because it may just help keep your heart healthier:

For the latest research, the University of Michigan team used data from 5,276 people over 50 with no history of heart problems, who were participants in an ongoing Health and Retirement Study in the United States…

At the start of the project, the respondents were asked to award points out of seven to reflect the extent to which they felt part of their neighbourhood, could rely on their neighbours in a pinch, could trust their neighbours, and found their neighbours to be friendly.

When they crunched the numbers at the end of the study, the team found that for every point they had awarded out of seven, an individual had a reduced heart attack risk over the four-year study period.

People who gave a full score of seven out of seven had a 67 percent reduced heart attack risk compared to people who gave a score of one, study co-author Eric Kim told AFP, and described the difference as “significant”.

This was “approximately comparable to the reduced heart attack risk of a smoker vs a non-smoker,” he said.

“This is an observational study so no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect,” the statement underlined.

While this research doesn’t establish direct effects, it introduces additional reasons for being a better neighbor. Would conclusive findings that this would help people’s health be more convincing to Americans than civic or moral arguments? Focusing on health could have a more individualistic emphasis – “I’d like to live longer” – though health could also be viewed on a community-wide scale – fewer heart problems mean less community money spent on healthcare.

It is also interesting that this relies on self-reported accounts of neighborliness. Is this fairly accurate? This could be measured in a variety of ways: number of conversations or visits with numbers, participation in local groups, and reports from neighbors about the neighborliness of others. Of course, it could be that perceptions of being a good neighbor matter even more than actual actions. Yet, I wonder how this lines up with the typical shocked accounts suburbanites present when one of their neighbors is accused of a crime.

Seeing Alzheimer’s as a social problem

The cover story in the current issue of Time is about Alzheimer’s research. The main story is set up in a typical way: the condition affects a lot of people and yet research into a cure is underfunded. What is interesting is that Time employs two statistics that suggest the cover story should really be about how people could make Alzheimer’s a social problem worthy of more attention.

The first statistic is an actual dollar amount: one expert says $500 million a year is spent on researching Alzheimer’s while $1 billion is spent on heart disease, and $5.6 billion on cancer. The second measure concerns public perception: 48% of Americans think “a great deal or some progress has been made in curing” the disease while 81% say the same about heart disease and 74% say the same about cancer. With these two statistics, Time suggests Alzheimer’s has a certain public image: it doesn’t attract the same kind of research dollars as other diseases and the public is pretty pessimistic about progress.

While the rest of the story concerns itself with the medical and scientific advances, perhaps it should be about how the public could be convinced that the disease deserves more attention. Some ways the public image could be enhanced: it needs more fund-raisers, more celebrity supporters, more support for research from public officials, and more stories that demonstrate how many people are affected by Alzheimer’s. Look at the public image of other conditions: diseases like breast cancer (where are those “edgy” Facebook campaigns for Alzheimer’s?) have effectively been cast as critical social problems that everyone should care about.

Perhaps this cover story is itself intended to help raise the profile of Alzheimer’s. While real medical progress is the true goal and it is what will ultimately benefit people, Alzheimer’s as a social problem is another important issue to be considered.