Living Well and Living Longer

by Joelle Steele

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For almost a half a century or more, psychologists and medical experts alike have been telling us that people are healthier and live longer when they lead socially active lives, pursue hobbies and other interests, and hold strong spiritual beliefs. In a recent study, two researchers at the Social Insurance Institution of Finland in Turku, have determined that "social capital" among the minority population of Swedish Finns may account for their lower rates of morbidity, disability, and mortality, as compared to the higher rates of the Finnish-speaking majority in Finland.


According to their article in Health Education Research (2003, Oxford University Press), researchers Markku T. Hyyppä and Juhani Mäki noted that the Swedish-speaking and Finnish-speaking populations in the Ostrobothnia province are "quite similar to each other in most societal respects, including, socioeconomic status, education, and use of health services." However, the Swedish-speaking minority live longer and more active lives, a factor that is not easily explained by "conventional health-related risk factors." Hyyppä and Mäki attribute this disparity to the higher amount of social capital within the Swedish-speaking community.


The term "social capital" was first defined in a published study in 1980 by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). It has since been studied and developed further by other researchers through the years, and is currently defined by the World Bank as "the norms and social relations embedded in the social structures of societies that enable people to coordinate action to achieve desired goals." In that regard, social capital is measured by social engagement, mutual trust, and community. And within the Swedish-speaking community, Hyyppä and Mäki found that voluntary association activity, a network of friends, religious involvement, and hobby club activity were all associated with good self-rated health. In addition, Swedish-speaking individuals were less prone to engage in "intoxication-prone drinking behavior," yet another plus in measuring good health and well-being.


While Finland is generally perceived as a monocultural and egalitarian society, the 5.8% of the population that is Swedish-speaking meet four of the major criteria for a recognized ethnicity: "Self-identification of ethnicity, language, social structure, and ancestry." These facts are "backed up by constitutionally guaranteed rights, as well as an extensive network of (Swedish) institutions and organizations, including a comprehensive Swedish educational system, Swedish TV and radio channels, newspapers and magazines, and a Swedish episcopate in the Lutheran Church of Finland." This certainly knits together tightly the Swedish Finns as an ethnic community, despite their intermingling with the Finnish-speaking members of society.


Reported mortality rates do not often favor ethnic minorities. However, since the earliest epidemiological health surveys were published in Finland in the 1930s, mortality rates have favored the Swedish-speaking minority. These seemingly culture-related health statistics also parallel lower rates of suicide, violent and accidental deaths and, in particular, cardiovascular mortality among Swedish Finns. Other statistics indicate that Swedish-speaking men and women retire at a later age, live longer, and do not as frequently live on disability pensions as do their Finnish-speaking counterparts.


In studying social capital and health in Swedish- and Finnish-speaking individuals, researchers Hyyppä and Mäki compared "demographic and social features, health status, health behavior, social ties, reciprocal trust, and social engagement in Ostrobothnia." They also evaluated surveys and other reports on living conditions, chronic and long-term illnesses, disabilities, and other related studies. After adjusting their data to account for demographic features, health-related behaviors, and social networks, Hyyppä and Mäki found that "reciprocal trust, neighborhood network, and membership in any religious association correlated 'highly significantly,' and active participation in associations 'almost significantly' with good self-rated health."

Hyyppä and Mäki believe that social capital may have an impact on the well-being of children and that it plays "a significant role in shaping health-related behavior." They recommended that public health advocates and epidemiologists in Finland focus their attention on how social capital impacts on health, so that "transition from the 'modern' to the 'post-modern' strategy of community health might turn down the neoliberal economic trends testing and eviscerating current welfare systems."

This article last updated: 01/19/2010.