New research suggests that children whose communities spend a lot on entertainment and recreation are less likely to get sick than their counterparts in deprived areas.
Statistics from 20 Ohio counties clearly show a link between happiness -- defined in this case as access to recreation -- and the physical well-being of children, says study co-author Mary A.M. Rogers, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan.
"The results suggest that communities with more investment in the arts, in entertainment, and in recreational activities have healthier children," says Rogers, who conducted the study while working as a researcher at the Medical College of Ohio.
Rogers says she and a colleague launched their study because they were intrigued by the assumptions heard in everyday conversations. "How many times have you heard a new parent say, 'Our only wish is that our baby will be healthy and happy?' In our daily lives, people frequently link these two, but there hasn't been much scientific research on health and happiness in children."
Researchers instead have focused on the effects of negative experiences, such as disease and accidents, she says.
Rogers and her colleague, Emily Zaragoza-Lao, decided to look at 20 counties in northwestern Ohio to see if happiness and health are related. Cities in the region include Toledo, Sandusky, and Lima.
The researchers used a state-sponsored phone survey of parents to determine the physical well-being of children in the area. The parents were asked to describe the health of their kids on a five-point scale from excellent to poor.
Rogers and Zaragoza-Lao turned to federal economic statistics to measure access to recreation. They ranked the counties by the per capita income made by businesses in the arts, entertainment, and recreation fields before taxes.
Those businesses included museums, amusement parks, spectator sports organizations, zoos, roller-skating rinks, miniature golf courses, and performing arts companies, among others.
The findings of the study appear in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
The researchers found the reported health of children rose directly in correlation to the amount spent per capita on entertainment and recreation. Children reported to be in "excellent" health lived in communities that spent an average $304 each year per capita; the amount was an average of $161 for communities of kids in "poor" health.
"We took into account the possibility that wealthier communities may have more entertainment opportunities, and the relationship between recreation and children's health still was evident," Rogers says.
She acknowledges it's not clear how physical recreation -- known to improve the health of children -- fits into the big picture. Some of the entertainment and recreation activities studied involved athletics and some did not.
It's also unclear if the "milieu" of entertainment and recreation activities contribute to the health of children, she says: "Often we go to the zoo or to amusement parks with family and friends. For most children, this is a joyful experience. We know that there is a link between stress and disease; recreational experiences may relieve stress and serve to strengthen ties between family members and friends."
The study didn't look at the dynamics of the families studied and that could be an important factor, says Dr. Jerry L. Rushton, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who studies depression in children.
Studies like this are difficult to design, he says. "In general, the hard part is trying to separate their findings [about health] from other important factors that may be tied up with access to arts, etc."
Other factors -- such as family structures -- "may be the real reason for differences," he says.