A life of booze, fags and slothfulness may be enough to earn your doctor’s disapproval, but there is one last hope — a repeat prescription of mates and good conversation. The striking impact of social connections on well-being has led researchers to call on health officials to take loneliness as seriously as other health risks, such as alcoholism and smoking.
“We take relationships for granted as humans,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University in Utah. “That constant interaction
is not only beneficial psychologically but directly to our physical health.” Holt-Lunstad’s team reviewed 148 studies that tracked the social interactions and health of 308,849 people over an average of 7.5 years. From these, they worked out how death rates varied, depending on how sociable a person was.
Being lonely and isolated was as bad for a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. It was as harmful as not exercising and twice as bad for the health as being obese. The study is reported in the journal Plos Medicine.
Holt-Lunstad said friends and family can improve health in numerous ways, from help in tough times to finding meaning in life. “When someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility to other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks.”
The psychologist said there was no clear figure on how many relationships are enough to boost a person’s health, but people fared better when they rarely felt
lonely and were close to a group of friends, had good family contact and had someone they could rely on and confide in.
Writing in the journal, the authors point out that doctors, health educators and the media take the dangers of smoking, diet and exercise seriously, and urge them to add social relationships to the list. According to the report, sociable people seem to reap extra rewards from their relationships by feeling less stressed, taking better care of themselves and having less risky lifestyles.