The correlation between socioeconomic status and life expectancy is well established, a part of a web of connections that include intelligence, education, lifestyle choices, use of medical services, air pollution, and wealth. Why does a higher socioeconomic status add a few years to life expectancy? That is the question, and in formulating a reasonable hypothesis it is always interesting to find groups that buck the trend. Here, for example, researchers examine a population in which low socioeconomic status individuals live for longer than is the case in the general population. I can't say that the focus on community by the researchers is much of an answer, however, as it only raises exactly the same question, one step removed from socioeconomic status: what exactly about community affects life span?
Almshouses provide affordable community housing for local people in housing need. They are generally designed around a courtyard to provide a 'community spirit', that is synonymous with the almshouse movement. They offer independent living but provide friendship and support when needed. Analysing up to 100 years' worth of residents' records from various almshouses in England, the research suggests that living in these communities can reduce the negative impact on health and social wellbeing which is commonly experienced by the older population in lower socioeconomic groups, particularly those individuals who are living in isolation.
The results are very encouraging. Residents in almshouses in England receive a longevity boost relative to people of the same socioeconomic group from the wider population. The best-performing almshouses in the study so far have shown a longevity boost which increases life expectancy to that of a life in the second-highest socioeconomic quintile - a remarkable outcome. As an example, the authors estimate that a 73-year-old male entering an almshouse such as The Charterhouse today would receive a longevity boost of 2.4 years (an extra 15% of future lifetime at the point of joining) compared to his peers from the same socioeconomic group, and 0.7 years when compared to an average 73-year-old from the general population. This longevity boost could be due to both the strong sense of community and social belonging within almshouses which lead to better physical and mental health. Enhanced wellbeing helps to mitigate loneliness which is endemic in older age groups.