Press Releases

1997 Releases

Breakdown in Social Trust Linked to Higher Mortality Rates in States

For immediate release: September 30, 1997

Boston, MA--Harvard School of Public Health investigators report in a new study that "social capital," or the extent to which there is trust among citizens, often expressed in the degree to which people are active in civic organizations, explains variations in mortality between U.S. states. Further, the authors find a direct association between the gap between rich and poor and the stock of social capital. This work is published in this week's American Journal of Public Health.

This large ecological study is the first to examine the interrelationship between income disparity, social capital and certain diseases and death. Social capital is often expressed in the degree to which people are active in bowling leagues, soccer clubs, hobby groups and other community organizations.

Ichiro Kawachi, MD, associate professor of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health and first author on the study, explains, "For some time it has been known that poverty is associated with a decline in health status. Similarly, social isolation is associated with health problems and shortened life. Our previous work (British Medical Journal 1996, vol. 312. pp. 1004-7) found that income distribution in states was linked to variations in mortality and, indeed, death from certain causes such as heart disease, cancer and homicide. We became interested in whether social capital, or the extent to which people feel a sense of trust and involvement in their communities, might actually be responsible for the observed differences in health and mortality."

He continues, "In fact, we find that as income inequality increases, the level of social mistrust increases. This in turn is associated with increased mortality rates." To illustrate the health impact of the presence or absence of social trust, the authors estimate that a 10% higher level of trust was associated with an 8% lower death rate from all causes. A similar significant inverse relationship is observed in the study between participation in civic groups and mortality.

Kawachi continues, "It is important to recognize that our study does not preclude the possibility that a decline in social trust in turn has an impact on income disparity. Nevertheless, our work shows that the growing gap between rich and poor, and its potential impact on the social fabric of communities, has health effects that warrant a deeper understanding."

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu