Relationships & heart health

Relationships, community, family & friends have a profound impact on Heart health.

The famed Framingham Heart Study was a grand exploration of heart health dating back to the 1940s. It taught us how smoking, high cholesterol, and even our family tree could forecast future heart hiccups. The Framingham Risk Score, a handy online calculator, became a beacon in preventive cardiology, guiding patients through heart health forecasts with just a few clicks.

But what if there's more to heart health? Enter the intriguing tale of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a small town that painted a different picture of heart health, influenced heavily by—wait for it—how socially connected we are.

Back in the 1950s, Roseto was a bustling hub of Italian immigrants who seemed to have unlocked the secret to a heart-healthy life, despite indulging in cigars and fried meatballs. The town was noted for its shockingly low rates of heart disease compared to its neighbors. The difference? Roseto was filled with social ties, bursting with community festivals, and brimming with multi-generational homes where no one ever felt lonely or isolated (whether they liked it or not).

In the 1960s, researchers meticulously examined dusty death certificates, scoured the quiet corners of church archives, and faded pages of local newspapers, revealing a common theme of statistically low rates of heart disease and heart attack cases.

In the nearby town of Bangor (population: 5,000), there were 79 heart attacks from 1935–1944, compared to just 9 in nearby Roseto. Although the two towns are just a mile apart, they continued to show the same dramatic disparity in congestive heart failure and overall death rates for the next few decades.

Researchers scratched their heads because, according to the Framingham Risk Score, Rosetans should've been in a pickle with their health. Instead, they thrived, thanks to their robust social fabric. This phenomenon, known as the "Roseto Effect," suggests that having a strong community and close relationships can be just as crucial for your heart as diet and exercise.

However, as time marched on and Rosetans embraced more solitary, suburban lifestyles, their heart disease rates began to climb, mirroring the more individualistic communities around them. This shift serves as a poignant reminder of the impact our social environments, communities and relationships have on our physical health.

“Social connections, community, and strong relationships have been associated with increased life span, improved mental health, and improved physical markers such as blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index, and inflammation. We are actually more strongly impacted by our peers and social networks than by our genetics, giving us more power over our health than you might think.” - Mark Hyman, MD

So, how can we sprinkle a little Roseto magic into our lives today? For starters, maintaining close bonds and ensuring we're part of supportive communities could be just as important as hitting the gym or eating right. In fact, recent studies reinforce this view, showing that married individuals tend to have lower risks of cardiovascular diseases compared to their single peers. Furthermore, feelings of loneliness have been linked to poorer health outcomes across various conditions, not just heart disease.

So, next time you're considering how to protect your heart, remember—it might just help to invite a friend over for dinner, or perhaps reach out to a neighbor. It seems after all that in the quest for longevity, a little love goes a long way!