A neighborhood baby shower; a weekly card game among retirees; a training session for a 5K walk. These might seem like unrelated moments in daily life, but each represents a distinct connection to community.
These and all communities have something in common: They offer a sense of belonging and connection with others. Community involvement can also have health benefits.
What Is Community?
The most top-of-mind community may be the neighborhood or city where you live. The true definition of community goes far beyond geography. People with diverse characteristics and experiences also can belong to communities based on social ties, common perspectives or interests, or demographics.
Some communities are formed by choice, like a book club. Others are formed by circumstances out of a person’s control, like a specific health condition or disability. Some communities form by a combination of the two. The card players may share age and employment status as a common bond, but they also create a community by regularly spending time together.
Most people belong to multiple communities. In fact, the same person could be involved in those neighborhood, card-playing, and 5K communities!
Community Involvement Can Improve Health
Communities are so ingrained in our everyday lives that we often don’t consider the impacts they have on us. Communities look out for one another and provide structure. This social support can enhance health and well-being, but the benefits go even further.
Community connections can provide the positive energy, outlook, and determination it takes to live life to the fullest. Doing things that make us happy reduces stress, which lowers blood pressure. A study of 70,000 women found that those with high optimism scores had a 38% lower risk of heart disease and 39% lower risk for stroke.
Understanding Community as Part of Whole Health
“Being engaged in communities can elevate a person’s whole health,” said Dr. Shantanu Agrawal, chief health officer at Elevance Health. We can improve people’s health by improving the health of their communities — whether those are geographic, self-selected, or demographic.
Geographic communities affect what people have easy access to — like nutritious food, clean air and water, health professionals and pharmacies, transportation, and green spaces. Increased access to any of these can improve health. The communities you choose to be a part of – like the weekly card playing group or the 5K training team -- influence the choices you make about your own health. When the people around you strive for better health, you are more likely to do the same.
How a person lives is just as important as where they live. Understanding how community dynamics affect people is part of seeing a full picture of their health. As the health system embraces cultural humility to better serve each individual, we have to remember that a person’s communities influence their culture and vice versa.
“When we more deeply understand individual and community needs, opportunities, and successes, we can build connections that support health,” Agrawal said.