When it comes to health, communities matter. In fact, research shows that the stronger our communities are, the better our health outcomes tend to be. One reason for this is that we draw on friends and family when we need help—whether that help is material or emotional. Another reason is that we often rely on social relationships for health information.

SPH Professors Linda Chatters and Neal Krause have both conducted studies showing the positive impact that religious communities can have on our health. Krause has found that older adults who are involved in religious activities tend to enjoy better physical and mental health—and he’s now embarking on a nationwide longitudinal study aimed at quantifying the impact of religion on health.

Chatters has found that support from fellow church members often complements support from family members—especially in African-American churches, where members are considered part of one’s “church family,” and terms like “Brother,” “Sister,” and “Mother” are commonly used. Her data show that church support among African Americans is related to lower levels of depressive disorders—suggesting that involvement in church networks is protective of mental health. African-American churches have also historically functioned as health care advocates, particularly in places with little or no access to health care.

Fictive Kin

It’s important to remember that the term “family” doesn’t necessarily mean people to whom we’re related by blood or marriage. In fact, recent research has shed light on the powerful—and often positive— role that “fictive kin” can play in our health and well-being, especially as we age. “Fictive kin” refers to those individuals we’ve come to regard—and treat—as family, with all the expectations the term implies. It’s a way of redefining family relationships and is seen in a number of cultures, including Mexican-American communities, where compadrazgo, or coparenthood, is a ritual fictive kinship system.

“Fictive kinship is an increasing phenomenon in contemporary life,” says SPH Professor Linda Chatters. “We are individually thinking of new ways to define kin, and maybe even to supersede blood and marriage in the ways we think about kinship. Some of this kin redefinition relates to family transitions such as divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation. But there are lots of ways that families change and kin relationships evolve, including chosen kin within LGBT groups.” Given ongoing demographic changes, new families in America will increasingly be blended, semi-extended, and inclusive of fictive kin.

To learn more:

Linda M. Chatters, et al. (1994) “Fictive Kinship Relations in Black Extended Families.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 25:3. 297–312.

Neal M. Krause. (2008) Aging in the Church. How Social Relationships Affect Health. West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press.

Robert Joseph Taylor, et al. (2013) “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Extended Family, Friendship, Fictive Kin, and Congregational Informal Support Networks.” Family Relations (62, 4):609–624.

Marieke Voorpostel. (2012) “The Importance of Discretionary and Fictive Kin Relationships for Older Adults.” In Rosemary Blieszner and Victoria Hilkevitch Bedford, Handbook of Families and Aging. Praeger, 244–259.

Be Social, Be Healthy

Years of research have taught Carlos Mendes de Leon, professor of epidemiology, that social connections and engagement may be beneficial to our health. “In general, older adults who have a greater number of social relationships and are more socially engaged tend to live longer, have less disability, and show somewhat less cognitive decline.”

What’s not known is precisely how social engagement contributes to healthy aging, and Mendes de Leon is working to answer that question. “It’s possible that it’s reverse causation—that better health leads to more socialization,” he says. “At the same time, I think it’s quite plausible that there are reciprocal effects. If you start the aging process in better health, that allows you to be more socially engaged, which in turn provides some protection against decline.”

Consider these ways to strengthen social ties—and boost your health:

  • Take part in a walking group
  • Join a local group in a church, community center, or neighborhood
  • Volunteer for a community-based organization
  • Participate in organized-group trips
  • Take a class

Where Gardens Flourish, Health Blooms

The research is clear—people who help plan, plant, cultivate, and harvest community gardens eat more healthily and are more physically active. But what researchers Katherine Alaimo and Tom Reischl discovered in a study of urban gardens in Flint, Michigan, in the early 2000s went further. Participation in community gardens, they learned, deepens social connections in ways that benefit both the community at large and the health and well-being of individual participants. People who garden together feel more connected to one another and their community and enjoy a deeper sense of purpose and meaning.

“The idea is that gardens may be a way to build community in places where community is disappearing,” says Reischl, an associate research scientist at SPH. Not coincidentally, many community garden volunteers are senior citizens, who draw special pleasure and meaning from working in a multigenerational environment. Not long after Alaimo’s and Reischl’s work, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation allowing county governments to assume ownership of foreclosed properties. It’s one reason community gardens are flourishing in cities like Flint and Detroit.

And Don’t Forget Pets …

The health benefits of pets are well known. “Some of the most dramatic positive therapeutic results are for populations where one wouldn’t necessarily expect close relationships,” says Cathleen Connell, professor of health behavior and health education. “Kids with autism, for example. Or children who are undergoing extended hospital stays due to chronic illness.”

Connell’s own research has documented the positive role pets can play for adults with dementia and their caregivers. Caregivers report that dogs and cats are often as much help to them as they are to the patients they’re tending. “Pets don’t really care if your memory’s tanking,” Connell explains. “They’re still there for you, and having something close, and having something that gives you comfort, is just such a relief to both caregivers and patients.” Connell cautions that because they require care themselves, pets aren’t for everyone. “There are certain circumstances where pets may no longer be appropriate.” But more often than not, pets are a boon to health and well-being.

In Joy and in Sorrow, the Importance of Touch

Touch is a deeply significant part of people’s lives, says U-M’s Sallie Foley, a faculty affiliate of the U-M Center for Sexuality & Health Disparities (SexLab) and director of the School of Social Work’s Sexual Health Certificate Program. Many people report that after the loss of a loved one, or during periods of acute loneliness, touch is particularly soothing and contributes to health and well-being. People who are recently widowed or have gone through a divorce find that getting regular massages—whether full-body or simply a foot, shoulder, or scalp massage—or any kind of reflexology helps them stay healthy in their bodies and mindful of their sensuality.