Can your social relationships increase your lifespan?

Can your social relationships increase your lifespan?

Social life may play a larger role in a person’s health than one might think.

A recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made a concrete connection between living a longer, healthier life, and maintaining social connections.

The first of its kind, the study connected relationships with real measures of physical well-being, including high blood pressure, abdominal obesity and inflammation — health issues that can lead to long-term problems like heart disease, stroke and cancer. The research builds upon previous work that found older adults live longer if they have more social connections.

Researchers said the conclusions from this study were even more promising — determining that a person’s social relationships play a role in decreasing health risk.

The study analyzed three dimensions of social relationships: social integration, social support and social strain. Researchers then studied how an individual’s relationships were associated with four key indicators for mortality risk: blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index and circulating levels of C-reactive protein, a measure of systemic inflammation.

Social isolation in adolescent years was found to be as likely to cause inflammation as physical inactivity, according to the study. Similarly, a lack of social integration was connected to obesity. In older participants, social isolation was more dangerous than diabetes when it came to developing and controlling hypertension. In both early and late adulthood, the size of an individual’s social network was important, while in middle adulthood, the support provided by social relationships played a much greater role than the number of relationships.

Dr. Sudhir Gokhale, a psychiatrist at Advocate Christ Medical Center and Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., echoes the importance of social relationships at all stages of life.

“The effect of emotional health on physical well-being is being understood more and more clearly as research continues,” says Dr. Gokhale. “This particular study points out the importance of quality and supportive relationships in life.”

For example, he says that a mother’s emotional health during pregnancy — helped by support and interaction with family and friends — has a positive effect on postpartum mood issues.

“Feeling connected with others seems to be showing a strong positive influence on reducing the risk of depressive disorders,” he says. “And now we know it also has a strong impact on various physical parameters.”

Dr. Gokhale stresses that physicians and health care providers should also emphasize the significance of social relationships on health as much as advocating for eating right and exercising.

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About the Author

Holly Brenza
Holly Brenza

Holly Brenza, health enews contributor, is the public affairs coordinator at Advocate Children's Hospital. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her free time, Holly enjoys reading, watching the White Sox and Blackhawks, playing with her dog, Bear and running her cats' Instagram account, @strangefurthings.