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How can we be healthier

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005
George Ellison is a Director of the Social Studies Research Unit at the Institute of Education, University of London. His research interests include inequalities of health in the high and low income countries. Ever Wondered sent him out to find out just how important it is for healthy community

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"Money can buy you lots of things, a good diet, nice clothes, nice food, but some people say it can’t buy you happiness, it can’t buy you love and now it seems money won’t necessarily buy you health.

You could be forgiven for thinking we’ve never been healthier. Look at how much taller we are today than our grandparents were. It’s the result of years of better nutrition, better sanitation, better housing, and all the improvements which occurred at the turn of the last century when our prosperity improved.

But scratch below the surface and you’ll see we’re not exactly the picture of good health. The sharp rise in life expectancy which occurred at the beginning of the last century has been tailing off ever since. Increased prosperity has passed some people by. Inequalities in income between rich and poor can make the whole of the community less healthy.

We all know what the financial capital of the world means, but where and what is the social capital? Social capital is just a fancy term for all the benefits of a friendly neighbourhood. It’s a bit like the support you get from family and friends which helps you cope when things get rough.

Football match Social capital is also about being active in your local community, whether it’s playing football, playing bingo, or simply saying hello to your neighbours in the street. It’s the interaction and social contact we have with people that we care about, and who care about us.

The Blitz The secret to full health as individuals in communities comes from that sense of belonging, from self-worth. We get it when we feel at home in our own neighbourhoods. You’ve probably heard about the Blitz spirit, how people during the war mucked in and helped each other out. Social, not the financial capital was the order of the day.

This was boosted by egalitarian government policies which spread the cost of the war across the board, so that income inequality between the rich and poor actually declined, rationing ensured that everybody had a fair share of food, and funnily enough during the war, everybody’s diet actually improved. So ironically, despite all the carnage of the war, social capital was high, and life expectancy overall actually increased.

But the Blitz spirit and the health benefits it brought, didn’t survive the war and as Britain prospered, the social fabric of our society went into decline. Now it no longer protects the health of those that are the most vulnerable.

Rubble and rubbish But who’s to blame?. A number of culprits: the 1960’s tower blocks, no more popping round for a cup of sugar or quick chat with your neighbours. Too many stairs, and the lift is always broken. Maybe we should have stayed with these Victorian houses.

Television, no more evenings chatting in the living room, and with computer games and the Internet you can now go for days without meeting a soul.
Families are also changing and people move around more, away from their roots. We’re becoming a society of ’individuals’.

Boy playing with Nintendo But the good news is, social capital’s a renewable resource. But how do we resurrect the Blitz spirit without going to war? Well for a start governments need to recognise that the health of individuals depends upon the social health of their communities, and that a thriving community during the day and an active social centre at night does more to improve the health of the individuals than empty political gestures"

If you would like to understand how people survive and thrive in cities then have a look at course DD304 Understanding Cities

Or perhaps you would like to learn more about the Social Sciences? Have a look at course DD100 An Introduction to the Social Sciences:Understanding Social Change

If you would like to find out more about this subject, here are a few suggestions.

Books you can read

The Home Front: The Blitz, Fiona Reynoldson, Hodder Wayland, ISBN 075020947

Healthy Neighbourhood, Natasha Gowman, Kings Fund Public Health Programme

The Spirit of the Community, Amitai Etzioni, Fontana, ISBN 1573241402

Britain on the Couch, Oliver James, Arrow, ISBN 009244020

Healthy Cities, John Amton, Open University Press, ISBN 0335094767

Links You Can Surf

For more information on the Institute of Education, University of London

For more information on Urban and Community Issues

For more information on Social Capital Study at Strathclyde University

Also on this site : You can join Britt Ekland as she explores the LA health scene and Keith Floyd as he enjoys some healthy food in Spain

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer.

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