New research shows that maintaining strong social bonds, starting from a young age, increases life expectancy by reducing health risks throughout a person’s life.
The researchers found that a higher degree of social connectivity was associated with lower risk of physiological dysregulation in a "dose–response manner" during adolescence, as well as during early, middle, and later adult life. For example, social isolation increased the risk of inflammation by the same magnitude as physical inactivity during adolescence, and the effect of social isolation on hypertension exceeded other clinical risk factors such as diabetes in old age.
This study, by researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the first to definitively link strong social relationships with concrete measures of physical health including: high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, BMI, and inflammation. The study identifies specific biological mechanisms triggered by social isolation that can lead to long-term health problems such as obesity, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
The January 2016 study, “Social Relationships and Physiological Determinants of Longevity Across the Human Life Span,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Over the past two decades, a wide range of studies have identified strong causal associations between social relationships, health, and longevity. However, until now, there were major gaps in our understanding of the mechanisms, timing, and duration of these associations.
This study builds on previous research which found that aging adults live longer if they have robust social connections. The findings illustrate how strong social relationships have the power to reduce health risks at each life stage, starting with adolescence and continuing through young, middle, and late adulthood,
In November 2015, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Loneliness: Perceived Social Isolation Is Public Enemy No. 1,” based on research which found that perceived social isolation increases stress hormones that can lead to premature death. The lead author of the study, John Cacioppo, is a social psychologist and neuroscientist who studies the biological effects of loneliness at the University of Chicago.
In various studies, Cacioppo has found that loneliness is linked to significant increases in the 'stress hormone' cortisol, hardening of the arteries (which leads to high blood pressure), inflammation in the body, and can diminish executive function.
Kathleen Mullan Harris is a Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who conducted the recent study along with her colleagues including Yang Claire Yang. For their latest study, Harris and her team analyzed data from four nationally representative surveys of the U.S. population that covered the entire lifespan of participants from adolescence to old age.
One of the four surveys the UNC-Chapel Hill researchers analyzed was part of The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. This study is the largest and most comprehensive collection of data on how social relationships, biology, environment, and behavior are intertwined in ways that influence well-being from adolescence throughout someone's entire life.
The researchers evaluated three dimensions of social relationships: social integration, social support and social strain. Then, they looked at how social relationships were associated with four key markers for mortality risk: blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index, and systemic inflammation.
The team found that the actual size of a person's social network was important during adolescence and late adulthood. In a press release, Harris said, "Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active."
The correlation between well-being and large social networks is more pronounced before and after midlife. The size of your social network isn't as important in middle adulthood, when the quality, not the quantity, of social relationships appears to matter more.
During adolescence, social isolation was found to increase the risk of inflammation on par with being physically inactive. In middle adulthood, the researchers found that it wasn't the number of social connections that mattered, but rather, how much loyal support and solidarity a close friend provided during both good times and bad times.
The breakthrough study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill has identified new evidence on the biological mechanisms linking the strength of social relationships with someone's physical health. These findings advance our understanding of the dramatic impact social connectivity and friendships have on the development and progression of diseases across the human lifespan. In a press release, Yang Claire Yang concluded,
"We studied the interplay between social relationships, behavioral factors and physiological dysregulation that, over time, lead to chronic diseases of aging—cancer being a prominent example. Our analysis makes it clear that doctors, clinicians, and other health workers should redouble their efforts to help the public understand how important strong social bonds are throughout the course of all of our lives."
Living in a digital era, which is dominated by so much screen time, makes it increasingly easy for our intimate connections and social bonds to atrophy from lack of face-to-face contact. Just like other lifestyle choices associated with health and longevity—such as going to the gym—take willpower to achieve, unplugging from digital devices and nourishing social networks in person often requires a conscious effort.
As William James wisely noted, over a century ago, "Human beings are born into this little span of life of which the best thing is its friendships and intimacies . . . and yet they leave their friendships and intimacies with no cultivation, to grow as they will by the roadside, expecting them to "keep" by force of mere inertia."
Hopefully, the new findings from UNC-Chapel Hill will motivate anyone reading this to make a commitment to stay more socially connected. Maintaining close-knit social bonds is a win-win situation. Social connectivity improves the well-being of your friends, family, and loved ones. Plus, nurturing friendships will make you healthier and happier, too.
To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:
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