New Evidence in Support of Tenet #5

August 13th, 2010

A New Risk Factor: Your Social Life

Social relationships are just as important to health as other common risk factors like smoking, lack of exercise or obesity, new research shows.

Numerous studies have suggested that strong social ties are associated with better health and longevity, but now a sweeping review of the research shows just how important social relationships really are. Researchers from Brigham Young University reviewed 148 studies that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people. They found that people who have strong ties to family, friends or co-workers have a 50 percent lower risk of dying over a given period than those with fewer social connections, according to the journal Plos Medicine.

The researchers concluded that having few friends or weak social ties to the community is just as harmful to health as being an alcoholic or smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes a day. Weak social ties are more harmful than not exercising and twice as risky as being obese, the researchers found.

Notably, the strongest effect was shown when studies used complex measures of social integration, focusing on a person’s family ties, friendships and work connections. In those studies, the survival rates for people with strong relationships were twice that of those with weaker ties. Single measures, like whether a person was married or living alone, weren’t good predictors of health. For instance, people who lived with others had just a 19 percent survival benefit compared with those who lived alone.

Although research has long suggested social relationships are linked with better health, it hasn’t been clear whether the effect is due to the fact that healthy people are more likely to be socially active. A person with chronic health problems has more difficulty spending time at work and with friends. While the data collected from the latest analysis don’t prove a causal relationship between health and social ties, the researchers say it is strongly suggestive, because the people studied were otherwise healthy and followed for an average of seven-and-a-half years. Even when controlling for a person’s health status, the benefit of social relationships was still evident.

There are several theories as to why social connections may improve health, including that people with strong family and social ties may be more active, more likely to seek medical care and have lower stress. “Our relationships encourage us to eat healthy, get exercise, get more sleep, see a doctor,’’ said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young.

Dr. Holt-Lunstad said the research suggests that medical checkups and screenings should also include measures of social well being. “Medical care could recommend if not outright promote enhanced social connections,” she said.

By Tara Parker-Pope

The New York Times

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