With the coming of each New Year, many of us use this time for a fresh start. Like most of us, you probably made a few New Year’s resolutions. We are now only a few weeks into the year and how many of you already feel like you are failing? Since the world did not end, as predicted by the Mayan calendar, we should probably start thinking more about our future. While yearly resolutions or goals are important, we need to live beyond the year and we need to start thinking about long term goals. What kinds of actions today, this week, this month, will get us to where we want to be in our future? Some common New Year’s Resolutions are: Lose weight, spend less money, spend more time with friends and family, quit smoking, exercise more, learn a new hobby, etc. Well, I’d like to suggest you try doing it with someone you love! Research suggests that connecting socially with others may not only help you achieve your goals but may make you healthier irrespective of the success of these other goals.
Spending more time with friends and family may influence your longevity. Yes, you read this right. There is now quite a bit of evidence documenting the association between the extent to which you are socially connected and how long you live. Although this may sound surprising, this is not new information. I have spent my career conducting research studies examining the association between our social relationships and physical health. Because of this research, I was aware of a paper published in the prestigious journal Science 25 years ago, and the many epidemiological studies since then that linked social isolation to increased risk of mortality on par with many other standard risk factors. However, I realized that most people had no idea. Sure most people are not surprised that our relationships can influence mental health, but physical health and longevity?
Recently my colleagues and I began a several year-long process of gathering all the studies ever published that measured individual’s social relationships and then followed them over time to see who lived longer than others (mortality). We eliminated studies where death was due to accidents or suicide because we were primarily interested in how our relationships can have protective or deleterious effects on our physical health. Once these studies were gathered and coded, we performed a meta-analysis—which basically means that we mathematically calculated a weighted average effect of social relationships on mortality across the studies. Thus, studies that had 10,000 participants got weighted more than those that only had 200 participants. Overall, across 148 different studies with over 300,000 participants we found that those with greater social connections had a 50% greater odds of survival than those with insufficient social connections.
Nurturing our relationships may be just as important as hitting the gym and quitting smoking. Since we are constantly bombarded with news reports with health claims, we were particularly keen to put the data into perspective to other well-established risk factors for mortality including smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity, obesity, and air pollution (among others). Are social relationships something we should be taking seriously for our health? Or, is this among the long list of research findings we hear about regularly that are interesting but the effect is too small to have much of a meaningful impact? Comparing the data from out meta-analysis to the cumulative data (other meta-analyses) for other factors, the influence of social relationships on mortality was comparable, and in many cases exceeded, the effect of many well-established risk factors. I know this may be a bit shocking, so if you don’t believe me you can check the data for yourself—it is freely accessible to the public (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjourna...). Lacking social connections is roughly as detrimental as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day and carries approximately twice the risk of obesity.
So as you are contemplating your New Year’s resolutions-- trying to figure out when you are going to have time to hit the gym, trying out the latest diet, or making an attempt to kick a bad habit-- consider including nurturing my relationships to the list.
It’s time to take your relationships just as seriously for your health!
Holt-Lunstad J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010) Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316. doi:10.1371.