The Ties That Bind Us Can Also Heal Us

Social Support Is Key Factor in Fighting Heart Disease and Living Healthier

May 13, 2005


Heart disease is the number one killer of adults in the United States. Each year over one million adults die from heart disease.

But take heart: there are steps that can be taken to minimize risk factors and prevent heart disease, including eating a heart-healthy diet, participating in physical activity, and not smoking.

Leading a healthy lifestyle when you have heart disease can be challenging, but you don't have to do it alone. "Building a network of support from friends and family is key," says Dr. Carla Boutin-Foster, Assistant Attending Physician and Assistant Professor of Complementary and Integrative Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. "Social supports are the day-to-day interactions between you, your friends, and family that provide love, important information, and assistance with daily tasks or chores."

"Social support has been linked to better health in people who suffer from a variety of health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It has also been shown to improve immune response," says Dr. Boutin-Foster.

How do you garner social support? Based on earlier studies she has conducted at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell, Dr. Boutin-Foster offers five suggestions on how you can approach friends and family to ask their help in leading a healthier lifestyle:

  • Make a list of the people around you who can provide you with social support.
  • Talk to your family and friends about how they can help you improve your health.
  • Talk to your doctor about ways you can improve your social support. Join a peer- counseling group for people with heart disease or join a health ministry at your church or place of worship, for example.
  • Make a health contract with a close friend or family member stating how he or she can help you to improve your health. Be specific. Tell them what is helpful and what is not.
  • If you do not like going to the doctor, ask a close friend or family member to go along with you for encouragement.

Dr. Boutin-Foster also offers some practical advice on how you can help your friends and family:

  • If you know of someone who is trying to manage their heart disease, ask them how you can be helpful.
  • Provide gentle reminders and encouragements, but never place blame or try to make the person feel guilty.
  • Share recipes for healthy meals.
  • Volunteer to work out with them, if their doctor says they can exercise. Exercise can be as simple as a walk in the park.
  • If you smoke and also have friends who smoke, set a quit date together.
  • Volunteer to pick up medications from the pharmacy.

Dr. Carla Boutin-Foster's research in social support at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center is funded in part by a faculty development grant from the Robert Wood Johnson's Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program.