Health Through Community

Community is an interesting concept that can be defined in many ways. Community is the town you live in, the family you grew up in, the family you created, the hockey team you play on, the people you work with, the elementary school you go to, and so on. It is the interactions within your various communities that help to define not only who you are but also who you strive to become. How can these interactions and relationships not have effect on your health?

The relationships within our communities have many individual aspects that play a role in both our health and happiness, including affectionate touch such as hugging, therapeutic touch such as energy work or massage, positive or negative verbal interactions, and contributions towards the community as a whole, such as volunteer work. In preparing to write this article, I came across a lot of research that focused on two things: the positive effect that volunteering and community interactions have, particularly on the aging adult population and the positive effect that kangaroo care and attachment parenting have on babies and children, from premature infants to toddlers.

Volunteering time and energy towards a cause that is important to one of your communities can reduce feelings of social isolation and depression, lower blood pressure, improve immune system function, lower cholesterol, and reduce mortality in older adults. Further, it decreases anxiety, improves sleep, boosts self-esteem, and assists with weight control. It’s true that regular exercise leads to many of the same results, but much of this research was using people with active lifestyles in the control group and volunteering improved these results even further. It appears that feeling connected to someone and something and contributing in a way that makes you feel useful and important is more critical to our well-being than previously thought.

Another interesting (and heated) area of research that is connected to the idea of community focuses on the effect of touch and closeness on well-being and development, primarily in infants and young children. There are many different theories of parenting floating around the bookshelves and websites and no singular system works for everyone but one thing is clear; babies, particularly newborn babies, full-term or premature, benefit from constant closeness in their early lives. This closeness also appears to have a striking effect on the primary care provider as well (generally the mother). The theories that are consistent with this idea are often labeled as either “kangaroo care” or “attachment parenting” and are by no means one-size-fits-all theories.
“Kangaroo care” refers to the practice of keeping the newborn baby skin-to-skin with mom (or dad) in the immediate postpartum period when possible. Much of the research has focused on the effect that “kangaroo care” has on premature infants that have been resuscitated and generally intubated and have had initial stays in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). These studies have found that newborns that are held skin-to-skin stay warm enough, have regular heart rates and respirations, more deep sleep and alert inactivity, less crying, no increase in infections (a common problem in premature infants), greater weight gain, and earlier discharge from the hospital.

“Attachment parenting” takes this theory and applies it to babies and children in the home environment. It refers to several different principles focused on creating a close connection between you and your baby, including bonding at or around the time of birth, babywearing, breastfeeding, and bedding close to the baby. It’s based on research that suggests that these techniques in combination lead to a closer connection between care provider and baby, better understanding of the baby’s cues and early language, and better nutrition. It also suggests that this parenting style actually leads to older children and adults that are more self-assured, independent, and trusting. Although in our culture attachment parenting (or parenting in general) tends to occur within one family and one household, interestingly, in other cultures it’s more common for these styles of childrearing to occur within a community or a multigenerational family.

These are just a few of a multitude of examples on how taking an active role in your community, whatever that means to you, can benefit your health and well-being. Even though those of us that fall in the middle of the spectrum may not have an emphasis on growth and development or on disease prevention, we certainly should aim to reap the same rewards of community involvement because one common thread clearly weaves through it all: people need people.

This month, celebrate the onset of a new season by finding a meaningful way to be a part of your community.