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Community spirit is behind resilient health in deprived areas

By Mark Viney


It’s a familiar story – if you live in a poor and deprived area then you’ll suffer less good health. But new research presented today at the British Science Festival shows that this isn’t always the case. There are reasons for hope.

Dr Jo Cairns-Nagi and colleagues at Durham University looked for areas of England that were deprived, but where people’s health was better than would be expected. Deprived areas that buck-the-trend of poor health are areas of “health resilience”.

Cairns-Nagi found about a thousand areas in England where there was health resilience in premature death – defined as death before the age of 75. Focusing on one district in Northumberland the researchers used a social science approach – focus groups and interviews with residents – to understand why this one district was health resilient.

It looks like being tied-in to a community is what makes the difference. Residents in the health resilient district had a particular attachment to their local district, as Dr Cairns-Nagi put it “there was a glue holding the community together”.

Other factors mattered too: this community was an engaged community in which many people participated, with a feeling of a sense of mutual obligation to help others. The natural environment seemed to be another key factor. Residents in the area said that they felt that their natural environment was therapeutic to them.

The key question for the study of health resilience is whether these results, from one specific region, can apply elsewhere. To try and answer this, Cairns-Nagi and colleagues have looked for some approximate ways of measuring sense of community engagement and attachment to their local district across other health resilient regions. Encouragingly, at this early stage of the work, the same trend seems to hold. “The good news is that deprivation and ill health don’t have to go hand-in-hand” said Cairns-Nagi. Although a sense of community isn’t a quick or easy thing to achieve, and the study also found that newer residents felt less included in the community. However, these results do offer an interesting insight into the wide variety of factors that play a part in health resilience.

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