By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/17/2008 8:55:44 AM ET 2008-06-17T12:55:44

When it comes to your health, your friends and neighbors may play a bigger role than your family.

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A new study involving identical twins found that the siblings with tight-knit social circles were healthier than their counterparts who didn’t feel as connected to their communities, despite their very similar DNA and upbringing.

Previous studies have found that people with strong relationships within their communities tend to have fewer ills, but it’s been unclear how much of a role a person’s “good” genes and childhood experiences played in their robustness. The new study removed those factors from the equation by using nearly 1,000 U.S. twin pairs who were raised in the same household. The research found that siblings with a deeper sense of belonging to a trusted community were more likely to report being in excellent or good health than their twin who didn’t feel a deep social connection.

For individuals, the take-home message is that they may be able to improve their health by developing closer relationships with others in their community, said Takeo Fujiwara, who led the research and is chief of the behavioral science section at the National Institute of Public Health in Japan.

“This is very good news because we can say ‘community’ can contribute to physical health, no matter what kind of gene they have, or how they were raised when they were young,” Fujiwara said.

The study only gathered a snapshot of the twins’ overall health status so while social connections seem to improve both mental and physical health, it’s not clear which specific diseases or conditions are impacted.

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, said she’s not surprised that stronger social bonds play a big role in better health regardless of a person’s genetic makeup.

“People who do not view the world as a supportive place are far more likely to have a fight-or-flight emergency response to minor stressors and challenges,” McGonigal said. “Over time, this chronic heightened stress reactivity makes the body vulnerable to a wide range of health problems, from the everyday cold to cardiovascular disease.”

McGonigal said one way people can increase their feelings of social support is through community service, such as helping at a church or food bank.

“Service puts you in a role where people trust you, and you interact with other people who are serving the community,” she said. “These direct experiences can over time profoundly change whether you view your world as friendly or hostile.”

Powerful connections
Colleen Wainwright, 46, found out just how life-changing stronger social connections can be when she developed a severe case of Crohn’s disease several years ago. At the time, Wainwright, a Los Angeles resident, had just broken up with a boyfriend, had few close friends and felt socially isolated.

“I felt very, very alone,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die alone.’”

But she eventually recovered and vowed to become more social and develop deeper and more supportive friendships. She joined Toastmasters and formed a group of close friends who meet regularly for dinner. As she developed tighter bonds, she saw her health improve.

Wainwright said in a typical year she used to contract several colds, a bad case of the flu and a bout of bronchitis. Since she expanded her social circle, she’s rarely sick. “I feel my baseline strength is better, and I think it’s because I feel connected to people in a way I wasn’t before,” she said.

In the study, which appears in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Fujiwara’s team obtained data on self-reported physical and mental health and social connections from 944 twin pairs, ranging in age from 25 to 74, who were participants in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States. Of the twin pairs, 351 were identical, which allowed the researchers to rule out the influence of both genes and upbringing factors, such as family life and level of wealth. The remaining 593 twin pairs were fraternal, which also helped eliminate the contribution early childhood experiences may make to long-term health.

Among both the identical and fraternal twins, those who reported higher levels of a sense of belonging to a supportive community had better health than their sibling. The twins assessed their own overall health status, by rating it from poor to excellent. The study was unable to zero in on specific diseases and conditions. That would require a much larger study, which Fujiwara said is his next project. The association between better health and social connections remained even after adjusting for age, gender, race and education.

Support when you're sick
Dr. Diego Coira, the chairman of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, added that while improved social ties won’t make us immune to all diseases, the feelings of support can do wonders in aiding recovery.

“Even if you have a healthy social life, if you get cancer, that illness may still progress,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that if your social support is good, your chance of dealing with illness is better and the illness may be milder.”

For Wainwright, the feeling of support she gets from her circle of friends has made all the difference in her health.

“I’m convinced that surrounding myself with people who care about me and love me makes me stronger,” she said. “It’s all about support. If I feel supported, then I don’t have to expend precious resources worrying about me because I know there are people there to take care of me if something happens, so there’s more resources to deal with other things.”

Steve Mitchell is a science and medicine writer in Washington, D.C.  His articles have appeared in a variety of newspapers, magazines and Web sites, including UPI, Reuters Health, The Scientist and WebMD

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