Connecting With Your Neighbors May Improve Their Health

Having strong neighborhood cohesion – or the perception of trust and connectedness between neighbors – can serve as protection for older adults against the assumed negative impacts of living alone.

older asian woman smiling and waving to her neighbor below

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Have you gotten to know your neighbors? Making connections with neighbors who live alone could help them stay healthy and live longer.

In the United States, about 27% of people age 60 and up live alone, according to Pew Research Center. We know that living alone can be associated with various poor health outcomes, such as depressioncardiovascular disease, dementia, and premature death.

My team of population behavioral health researchers at Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research examined 10 years of data from over 3,000 older Chinese adults living in the greater Chicago area. We wanted to better understand if neighborhood cohesion – the perception of trust and connectedness between neighbors – can extend life among those who live by themselves.

As one of the first studies to examine this relationship, our findings indicated that strong connections with neighbors reduced early death among people who live alone. Specifically, study participants who lived alone and had strong connections with their neighborhoods had a 54.7% risk reduction of death than their peers who were living alone and reported low interactions with their neighbors during our 10-year observational period.

Our research team looked at data from the Population Study of Chinese Elderly in Chicago (PINE), which included information from face-to-face interviews about people’s living arrangements and a perceived neighborhood cohesion questionnaire, as well as vital status traced and ascertained by the PINE research study team. The questionnaire looked for overall social cohesion and participants’ sense of integration into their neighborhood, asking questions such as “How many neighbors do you know by name?”

Findings showed that living alone did not pose a significant risk for death. Instead, those who lived alone and didn’t interact with neighbors had a much higher risk of dying earlier than those who lived with others. Yet this risk wasn’t as present among those living alone who had more neighborhood connections (e.g., knowing neighbor’s names; neighbors watching out for each other). Having strong neighborhood cohesion served as protection against the assumed negative impacts of living alone.

There are a few reasons why neighborhood cohesion can reduce early death related to living alone. It’s important for people to maintain ties with society as they age. Living alone can cause psychological and social needs to go unmet and impact people’s overall health. If older adults can develop strong connections with their community, strengthening their social interactions and engagement with society, the risk of poor health or death can be mitigated.

Certain cultures appear to experience neighborhood cohesion differently, which makes our focus on Chinese older immigrants significant. In collectivist cultures, like Chinese cultures, there is a higher value placed on group support systems. Therefore, members of collectivist cultures may feel a greater need for neighborhood cohesion and may be more negatively affected if there is a lack of connection to community and support systems.

Through this research, we’re developing a clearer understanding of how neighborhood cohesion can impact residents’ health, especially those who live alone. Our study highlights the importance of a connected neighborhood for promoting the health of older adults.

You can take actions to help. A cohesive neighborhood is created by caring, friendly neighbors. So the next time you see your neighbors getting the mail or walking their dog, be sure to say hi and ask how they’re doing.

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