Study explores link between neighbourhoods and heart health


By Prabhjot Sohal

While it can be debated whether good fences make good neighbours, a new study by Western researchers, Dr. Sarah S. Singh, Dr. Saverio Stranges, Piotr Wilk, PhD, Dr. Anthony Tang and Stephanie J. Frisbee, PhD, shows that good neighbourhoods could indeed do a lot of good to your heart.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, uses national data on the health of Canadians aged 20 or older to explore the impact of the social environment on cardiovascular health.

“Cardiovascular health or heart health refers to the state of heart and blood vessels. These systems are important because they carry nutrients and oxygen throughout the body,” said Singh, the lead author of the study and postdoctoral associate with the Dementia Prevention Initiative (DPI) at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. 

Headshot-SSingh-300x300.jpgDr. Sarah S. Singh, Postdoctoral associate, Dementia Prevention Initiative (DPI) at Schulich Medicine

“Thanks to great research, we now know that we can maintain good heart health through lots of exercise, eating a nutritious diet and living a healthy lifestyle. But what if that’s not the whole story? What about the environment where we exercise, eat and live… our neighbourhoods? I address these questions in my research,” said Singh. The findings of the study show the lifestyle of most Canadians does not support heart health. “The national data shows that only one in four Canadians are working toward better health by exercising, eating well and staying in good overall health. This is concerning, given all we know about preventing heart disease, and the fact that heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in Canada and globally.”

The study uses multiple models to analyze factors that support preventive health behaviours among individuals. The findings show that living in neighborhoods with adequate housing, park space and accessible community health centres can significantly improve heart health.

 “Interestingly, also feeling like we are an integral part of our neighbourhood can result in better heart health,” said Singh.

The study also analyzed data from neighbourhoods with marginalized and immigrant populations. The findings show that individuals with scarce material resources, limited community support and high life stress had lower odds of achieving ideal heart health. Researchers also found that individuals with immigrant status, women and those with no history of illicit drug use had higher odds of having good cardiovascular health.

Singh said that at a time when health and housing are among the top policy issues in Canada, the findings of the study make a compelling case for considering a broader approach to addressing these problems.

“While pharmaceutical or behavioural interventions to prevent heart disease are crucial, we also need to consider the social environment. Targeted interventions and solutions for those who find themselves in a poor social environment — for example, accessible preventive health care or education, and infrastructure, such as green spaces and food banks with healthy food options – could help in achieving ideal cardiovascular health.”

The study is based on integrated national data sets sampled from the Canadian Community Health Survey by Statistics Canada. For analysis, demographic and individual factors influencing cardiovascular health were included and pitted against multiple aspects of social environment. The measures of social environment included sense of community belonging, life stress, community well-being and measures of material and social deprivation.