WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Strong social ties are associated with self-rated health worldwide, according to a new study based on Gallup data in 139 countries. Even after accounting for various factors that may also affect health outcomes -- including age, gender, education, and marital status -- individuals who say they have family and friends they can count on to help them in times of trouble are consistently more likely to be satisfied with their personal health.
A research team including Santosh Kumar, Ph.D., of the University of Washington and Lisa Berkman, Ph.D., of Harvard University recently published these and other findings based on Gallup data in the peer-reviewed journal Social Science & Medicine. While other studies have demonstrated the connection between social support and health outcomes in specific regions -- most notably high-income Western nations -- this is the first to provide evidence that the relationship extends to countries at all income levels and in all geographic regions.
The final study includes more than 270,000 individuals interviewed from 2005 to 2009, covering residents in 34 developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 22 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 14 countries in South and Southeast Asia. Using separate statistical models for each country, the authors calculated odds ratios describing residents' greater likelihood to be satisfied with their health if they have social support than if they do not.
Berkman noted that the lack of a supportive social network could affect individuals' health in several ways: "People who are socially isolated tend to have more physiological stress, poorer immune function, and a host of biological risk factors," she said. "They also often have riskier health behaviors like heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption. And they can have worse access to healthcare."
In addition to social support, the authors also examined differences in health satisfaction between respondents who had volunteered with an organization in the past month and those who had not -- another indicator of individuals' connectedness to others in their communities. Though relationships were typically weaker in this case, they did find a connection between volunteering and health in many countries, after accounting for age, gender, marital status, and religiosity.
The study's finding that that the pattern of positive association between social support and health is nearly universal sets the stage for more detailed analysis of how it plays out in specific countries and regions. The authors note that ongoing research in this area carries important implications for policymakers and nongovernmental organizations seeking to promote public health in poorer regions. "There's a clear correlation between social support and self-rated health in many developing countries," Kumar said. "These associations suggest policies to promote community involvement could go a long way in improving population health."
For complete data sets or custom research from the more than 150 countries Gallup continually surveys, please contact SocialandEconomicAnalysis@gallup.com or call 202.715.3030.
Results are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted between 2005 and 2009 with 271,642 adults between the ages of 15 and 75 in 139 countries. In most countries, about 1,000 respondents were interviewed each year. For more information including full methodological details, purchase the complete study online or contact authors Lisa Berkman or Santosh Kumar.
For more complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.