What if Mr. Rogers was right? What if a “beautiful day in the neighborhood” could actually promote good health and wellbeing?

The physical environment of your neighborhood — the degree to which you are exposed to noise, pollution, violence, crowding and other stressful features is known to affect health. Many studies have found that urban environs are connected to increases in several health conditions such as asthma and lead poisoning.

But what about the social environment? A recent study sheds some light on how a sense of community affects health.

The more close-knit a person's neighborhood was, the better his or her heart health.

The researchers focused on social cohesion, or how connected neighbors felt to one another and how willing they were to help out for the good of the community.

When occupants of a neighborhood feel a sense of social cohesion, they feel secure in their environment; they like and trust their neighbors; and they feel they can rely on them for help. Previous studies have shown positive health outcomes when neighborhoods are perceived of as supportive and safe.

The researchers followed more than 5000 people for four years. The participants were all over the age of 50 and had no history of heart disease. Each was asked about their attitudes toward their neighborhoods. Their cardiac health histories were also collected during the study period.

Participants were asked to rate the following statements on a 1 to 7 scale:

  • I really feel part of this area.
  • If you were in trouble there are lots of people in the area who would help you.
  • Most people in this area can be trusted.
  • Most people in this area are friendly.

Each person's health history was obtained both from their physicians and their own health self-reports.

The neighborhood a person lived in made a measurable difference. The more close-knit a person's neighborhood was, the better his or her heart health. People who felt better about their neighborhood climate were less likely to experience a heart attack during the four years of the study. This was true even when behavioral, biological and psychosocial factors that can contribute to heart attack risk — such as weight, marital status, smoking, and fitness level — were factored in.

What is it about some neighborhoods that makes their residents healthier? Researchers suggest that neighborhood cohesion may improve heart health by increasing physical activity because of the sense of social comfort and safety. It may also be that neighbors influence each other in positive health-promoting behaviors. Decreased stress levels and greater general happiness may also be a factor.

This study is good news for individuals, families and health care providers, as it provides insight into a largely untapped mechanism for promoting heart health. Most current strategies aim at individuals, trying to encourage them to adapt heart-healthy diet, exercise and life styles and to follow medication recommendations for conditions such as hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. These are important but not always as effective as we would hope.

The findings suggest that developing more favorable neighborhood conditions might provide an additional boost to health. Researchers suggest that social and public health policies should take into account the data and they encourage the adoption of policies that would boost the strength, cohesion, and safety of neighborhood. The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.