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Although various studies have found a positive association between neighborhood social capital and individual health, the mechanism explaining this direct effect is still unclear. Neighborhood social capital is the access to resources that are generated by relationships between people in a friendly, well-connected and tightly knit neighborhood community. We expect that the resources generated by cohesive neighborhoods support and influence health -improving behaviors in daily life. We identify five different health-related behaviors that are likely to be affected by neighborhood social capital and test these behaviors separately as mediators.
The data set pertaining to individual health was taken from the 'health interview' in the 'Second Dutch national survey of general practice' (DNSGP-2, 2002). We combine these individual-level data with data from the 'Dutch housing demand survey' (WBO, 1998 and WoON, 2002) and statistical register information (1995-1999). Per neighborhood 29 WBO respondents, on average, had answered questions regarding social capital in their neighborhood. These variables have been aggregated to the neighborhood level by an ecometric methodology. In the main analysis, in which we tested the mediation, multilevel (ordered) logistic regressions were used to analyze 9253 adults (from the DNSGP-2 data set) from 672 Dutch neighborhoods. In the Netherlands, on average, neighborhoods (4-digit postcodes) comprise 4,000 inhabitants at highly variable population densities. Individual- and neighborhood-level controls have been taken into account in the analyses.
In neighborhoods with a high level of social capital, people are more physically active and more likely to be non-smokers. These behaviors have positive effects on their health. The direct effect of neighborhood social capital on health is significantly and strongly reduced by physical activity. This study does not support nutrition and sleep habits or moderate alcohol intake as possible explanations of the effects of neighborhoods on health.
This study is one of the first to test a mechanism explaining much of the direct effect of small-area social capital on individual health. Neighborhood interventions might be most successful at improving health if they stimulate both social interaction and physical activity.