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Social Networks and Volunteering Linked With Good Health Worldwide

Article / Review by on February 28, 2012 – 11:15 pmNo Comments

Social Networks and Volunteering Linked With Good Health Worldwide

Much research has indicated that strong social networks and volunteering are linked with good health. But most of that research was done in western or developed countries. Now, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers and colleagues have found that the association holds true the world over.

Social Networks and Volunteering Linked With Good Health Worldwide

“Based on these findings, it appears that the relationship between social isolation and poor health is a nearly universal phenomenon,” said Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and Cabot Professor of Public Policy, Epidemiology, and Global Health and Population at HSPH and senior author of the study. “We never knew before whether this was a particularly ‘Western’ phenomenon or would hold true only for wealthy industrialized countries. These findings help us understand that these links exist across the globe from the richest to the poorest countries.”

The study was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine on January 23, 2012. Lead author of the study was Santosh Kumar of the University of Washington.

From India to Ireland, from Afghanistan to Argentina, individuals in the study with stronger social ties were more likely to be satisfied with their personal health—even after the researchers accounted for other factors that can affect health outcomes.

Source: Gallup

Using data from the Gallup World Poll gathered between 2005 and 2009, the researchers analyzed information from 271,642 people between the ages of 15 and 75 in 139 countries—a representative sample of 95% of the world’s adult population.

The researchers found that, regardless of the region or the national income level, social support and volunteering were positively associated with health, even after they factored in age, education, gender, and two other forms of social contact that have previously shown strong associations with health—marital status and religiosity.

They found that people with strong social support from friends and family are twice as likely to report being healthy as those who lack such support. The benefit from volunteering is apparently lower, but still significant; those who said they volunteered during the previous month had 14% higher odds of reporting good health than those who didn’t volunteer.


The researchers say it’s unclear if social support and volunteering actually lead to better health, or if it’s the other way around. They acknowledge that, if people are in good health, they may be more likely to spend time with friends and family and volunteer—meaning that good health leads to stronger social ties, as opposed to the other way around. Further evidence is necessary, they write, “to disentangle the role of reverse causality.”

As for public health implications, the study suggests “that we should be identifying and implementing a range of social and economic policies that sustain families, intergenerational relations, and communities,” Berkman said.

Other HSPH authors included Maria Rocio Calvo Vilches, a research fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, and Mauricio Avendano Pabon, adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health.

By Karen Feldscher
Harvard School of Public Health

photo: Rosii Floreak


About Harvard Medical School (HMS)

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“Since 1872, Harvard Medical School has been the incubator of bold ideas—a place where extraordinary people advance education, science and health care with unrelenting passion.

Whether training tomorrow’s doctors and scientists, decoding the fundamental nature of life, advancing patient care or improving health delivery systems around the world, we are never at rest. Allied with some of the world’s best hospitals, research institutes and a University synonymous with excellence, the School’s mission remains as ambitious as it is honorable: to alleviate human suffering caused by disease.”

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About Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.

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About Harvard University.

Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.

Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. Harvard faculty are engaged with teaching and research to push the boundaries of human knowledge. For students who are excited to investigate the biggest issues of the 21st century, Harvard offers an unparalleled student experience and a generous financial aid program, with over $160 million awarded to more than 60% of our undergraduate students. The University has twelve degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offering a truly global education.

‘Universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking and harnessing new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modeling environments that promote dialogue and debate… The ideal and breadth of liberal education that embraces the humanities and arts as well as the social and natural sciences is at the core of Harvard’s philosophy. ’/ Drew Gilpin Faust

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* The above story is adapted from materials provided by Harvard University

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