Berkman 1995 - The Role of Social Relations in Health Promotion

Berkman, Lisa F.
"The Role of Social Relations in Health Promotion"
Psychosomatic Medicine - Special Issue: Superhighways for Disease
May/June 1995; v.57, n.3; pp.245-254
On the Web
Relevance: low/medium

Here's the nut of the article, from the abstract: "There is now a substantial body of evidence that indicates that the extent to which social relationships are strong and supportive is related to the health of individuals who live within such social contexts. A review of population-based research on mortality risk over the last 20 years indicates that people who are isolated are at increased mortality risk from a number of causes." According to Berkman, social isolation, "seemed to make people more vulnerable to a broad range of diseases and disabilities..." (This is in marked contrast to the standard medical etiological approach that specific causes for specific diseases.)

Berkman discusses the findings of six studies that examine the chances of recovery from serious illness based on the victim's degree of social isolation. In each of the six studies that Berkman discusses (5 in the U.S.; one in Sweden) recovery, or lack of morbidity, from a variety of diseases is much higher among victims with social connections. Mortality risks are often as much as 3 times higher for socially isolated victims.

For our purposes, one big weakness of this paper is that it does not link social isolation (or connectedness) to urban form in even the most oblique way. In the studies Berkman references, social connections are often defined as one or two strong social connections (like a spouse, other family member, or a very close friend). Social connectedness is not defined as neighborhood ties, informal community networks, or civic engagement, which are the standard features of the research on social capital and urban form. It's hard to see that one or two supportive family members would in any way correlate to residential density or other urban characteristics. In any event, I've not encountered any research that suggests this. So while Berkman's article on the role of social relations is fascinating, it's not the same sort of social capital that may be associated with compact neighborhoods.


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