Thursday, August 16, 2007
OU researcher examines social assets and health
By Rebecca Wyatt Thomas, OU Web Writer
Scientific research shows that things like exercise, healthy eating and not smoking lead to a longer life. But what about interaction with other people? Since 2003, OU Professor of Economics Sherman Folland has been studying the effects of social networks on a person’s health.
“Social capital is a measure of a community or person’s network of social contacts,” Folland said. “My research enhances what some others have found, that the greater your social capital, the healthier you are likely to be.”
To come to this conclusion, he studied the 50 United States separately and together.
“In these data, people who live in states with higher social capital are healthier as measured by life expectancy, total ages adjusted mortality rates, infant mortality rates and the rate of low weight births,” he said.
Folland hypothesizes that human contact usually relieves stress and brings information so humans will coach others around them to be healthier. He also suggests that bonding with people increases a person’s self-worth and their feeling of responsibility to others to stay healthy.
“I also found that having a spouse and children tend to improve average health the same way as a sociable community,” he said.
Folland became interested in exploring how social capital is related to health after coming across an article by Robert Putnam, a leading explorer of the subject online. Putnam found that a social capital index of his devising is beneficially correlated with community outcomes for educational attainment, child well-being, crime and many other measures. Folland began to conduct his own research on the relationship of that index to health.
By exploring social capital, the OU researcher and others have shown that this measure is beneficially associated with health. Folland believes that if the association can be shown to be causal, this would open up a new understanding of how to improve human experience in communities. He said this theory is already being promoted by the World Bank as a means of world development.
“Health economists like me might be the most useful if we concentrate on trying to establish whether social capital is a truly reliable contributor to people’s health,” Folland said. “We need to provide stronger tests of the social capital hypothesis and prove it wrong or support it in the process.”