For decades, social science researchers have believed that social interactions play an important part in our health and well-being. If you think about your own daily life, it makes perfect sense. When you feel supported by a network of family and friends, you likely feel happier and more relaxed. But do those feelings translate into better health?
A new systematic review asked that exact question. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill combined data from four longitudinal surveys that followed more than 14,000 participants at various stages in life to measure their social lives and health indicators. The review was published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers measured various aspects of participants social networks including social integration, social support and social strain. They asked questions about how many friends participants had, their marital status and their community involvement. In addition, they asked participants to identify whether their family and friends were critical, supportive, loving, argumentative or annoying.
Researchers then compared participants social networks to markers of physical health including blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index and a protein that identifies inflammation.
Personally, I was surprised by the results. Participants’ social networks correlated with health measures from adolescence to late adulthood. Poor social connections were associated with elevated risk of disease at every stage of life.
For example, adolescents who were socially isolated had increased risk of inflammation markers equal to adolescents who did not exercise at all. In addition, older adults who were socially isolated were more likely to have high blood pressure than older adults with diabetes.
There were some variations with age. Having a large social network was more important than having high-quality relationships for teen-agers and older adults, at opposite ends of the span. But for middle-aged adults, the quality of relationships had a more important impact on health.
The take-home message here is clear: Social relationships as important to health as other lifestyle factors including diet and exercise. Researchers still aren’t sure why this is the case, or exactly how strong social networks translate into better health. There are some theories that strong social ties help to buffer stress, which has wide-ranging effects on health. That’s unmistakably an opportunity for future research.