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Love thy neighbour, it might just save your life

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Miranda Prynne

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Healthy relationships: Good neighbours can mean more than just good friends.

Healthy relationships: Good neighbours can mean more than just good friends.

People with friendly neighbours and strong community ties are less likely to suffer heart attacks, new research suggests.

Those with the highest neighbourly scores could reduce their risk of a heart attack by up to 70 per cent, the authors said.

Researchers tracked the health of more than 5000 American adults aged 51 to 105 with no known heart problems over four years from 2006.

On friendly terms: A new study shows good neighbours are good for the heart.

On friendly terms: A new study shows good neighbours are good for the heart. Photo: Wayne Venables

At the start of the study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the participants, whose average age was 70, were asked to describe their neighbourhood.

The "perceived neighbourhood social cohesion" survey saw participants answer the questions on a seven-point scale about their neighbours and community.

They were asked how much they felt a part of the community, whether there would be lots of people to help them if they were ever in trouble, how much they trusted people in their area, and how friendly their neighbours were.

Of the 5276 people studied, 148 had heart attacks during the four-year, follow-up period.

After taking into account other contributing factors, such as age, race, gender and income, researchers found that people had a reduced risk of heart attack if they responded positively to the questions.

They found that on the seven-point scale, each point increase in perceived neighbourhood social cohesion reduced the risk of heart attack by a factor of 17 per cent.

This meant that if a score of just one equated to the highest chance of a heart attack, given as 100 per cent chance, this fell to just 83 per cent for a score of two, 68 per cent at three and so on, down to just 32 per cent for those scoring seven - a 68 per cent reduction.

This remained the case even taking into account relevant socio-demographic, behavioural, biological, and psychosocial factors, as well as individual social support.

While the authors from the University of Michigan called for more research into the field, they said the findings echoed previous studies that have linked better social support to improved heart health and lower risk of strokes.

They cautioned against drawing definitive conclusions about cause and effect but said a strong social support network of friends and family has been linked to better health, so a secure and friendly neighbourhood could be an extension of that.

"Greater perceived social support - one's perception of access to social support - has been linked with better cardiovascular health," they wrote. "Perceived neighbourhood social cohesion could be a type of social support that is available in the neighbourhood social environment outside the realm of family and friends."

The research was welcomed by heart charities.

Julie Ward, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "It's not just diet and exercise which can influence our heart health, even the physical environment and communities we live in can play a significant part.

"We know, for example, that living in poor housing, in a deprived neighbourhood with a lack of green open spaces can have a negative impact on our health.

"This study goes a step further showing the reverse could be true - that living in a community with good neighbours that look out for and support you could have a positive effect by reducing your risk of a heart attack.

"However, there were several important limitations to this study so further research is needed to include a larger and more diverse range of ethnic minority populations."

Daily Telegraph, London