Friends with health benefits
Social interaction plays a bigger role in health than researchers thought. Your best friend just may save your life.Updated: Sep 02, 2010 18:11 IST
Social interaction plays a bigger role in health than researchers thought. Your best friend just may save your life.
Your mother has been urging you to play nice and make friends since playground days. Heck, you're even guilty of pushing your own children toward the sandbox with hopes that they'll thrive socially and make fast pals with the other little girls and boys.
Decades later, if you're lucky enough to have close friendships left over from childhood, there's mom to thank. Her play yard prodding is the reason you have someone to cry, laugh and drink with whenever the need or want should arise. But more than that, new research shows that your friends may be the key to good health. Salute!
"The idea that social interaction is important to mental and physical health has been hinted at and studied for years," says Steven Joyal, M.D., vice president of scientific affairs and medical development for Life Extensions, a nonprofit dedicated to research on extending the human life span. But a meta-study released this summer from researchers at Brigham Young University have determined the link is more direct than previously imagined.
"We knew that the body of research that had been done on social relationships was large," says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a co-author of the study. "But no one in the health community seemed to recognize the extent to which social relationships affect mortality." The research was conducted to explore the extent to which social relationships and interactions influence morbidity. And for loners, the outcome wasn't good.
Social isolation, according to the meta-analysis, which included 148 different studies totaling more than 300,000 participants, can have a very serious negative impact on your lifespan. Those with adequate or high social relationships--friends, family, neighbors or colleagues--were found to have a 50% greater likelihood of survival than their friendless counterparts. Some questions used included: Do you have people you can count on in times of need? Do you feel lonely? Do you live alone?
Turns out, social isolation may actually be one of the biggest risk factors for human mortality. As an example, here is how the study corresponds low social interaction to some of the more common risks to our wellbeing:
As bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
As dangerous as being an alcoholic.
As harmful as never exercising.
Twice as dangerous as obesity.
"I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that given the choice to be healthy, you should keep smoking and just make more friends," says Joyal. "But it's certainly interesting to make the connection between such significant risks."
It's important to note that, because this is a meta-study that looked at studies with various measurements of relationships, there is not a specific threshold or number of friends (or lack thereof) that qualifies you as having adequate social contact. Rather, Holt-Lunstad says, the study looks at different ends of the same scale.
"There's been this notion that it's just those people who are 100% socially isolated who are at risk," she says, "and that if you have one friend, you are OK. But this isn't the case. People who have more, or more complex, social resources vs. people who have less, have higher rates of survival."
But why? Holt-Lunstad points to the many things that friendships afford us in terms of survival, from comfort and companionship to safety. Joyal's view on how social connectivity and longevity are linked is evolutionary. "Social ties have been linked to survival since it became important for humans to work together in a variety of ways thousands of years ago," he says.
"Social contacts are often related to your life-cycle stage," says Claudia Fine, chief professional officer of SeniorBridge, a geriatric care management firm with branches throughout the country. "When you're in college, you are in a bubble of social connectivity. Similarly when you are in middle age and go to the office each day and see co-workers, and then go home to your family and spend weekends with friends, you are equipped with a very large network of people." But for some people, particularly the aging population, it is hard to hold onto those contacts as your life stage or location changes. Fine has seen numerous cases where social isolation has literally been fatal.
"I knew a woman who, at 100, was as sharp as a tack," Fine shares. "One of 10 children, she never married but had created a vast social network for herself. She had worked in millinery and was friends with everyone in her apartment building." Unfortunately at 102, the social butterfly ran out of money to support her lifestyle and moved into a nursing home, where she lost touch with her friends. Fine says that she died less than six month later.
SeniorBridge uses methods of reconnecting the aging population with far-flung family members and other friends, largely with the help of the Web. "We do a lot with Skype," Fine says of the Web-based video phone service, "to connect seniors with adult children who may live across the country."
Similarly, online social networking is playing a huge role, not just for seniors, in building and maintaining relationships with others. Facebook has a particular knack for bringing old friends and flames back onto each other's radar after years apart. "We know that the social relationships we have are important, and it's about the connection, [although social networking is] less concrete than face-to-face contact," says Joyal.
Holt-Lunstad stresses that while her Brigham Young study doesn't take into account Web-based relationships, she is interested in what social networks might mean for the future. "As far as how our online relationships affect our long-term health? We need to do more research," she says. "It may be that there is a positive effect. But I certainly wouldn't say that just because someone has 600 friends on Facebook, they can consider themselves healthy. I just wouldn't."