It’s Cold and Flu Season, Call a Friend

Maintaining social connections is as important for your health as a flu shot.

Posted Oct 19, 2018

 Lordn/iStock
Friends make us healthier.
Source: Lordn/iStock

When the temperature outside drops and coats come out of storage, reminders pop up everywhere: Get a flu shot. (You really should.) You should also exercise at least three times a week and eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.  Know what else you should do for your health? Make time for your friends. That last one doesn’t come with regularly repeated instructions, but it is no less important. 

Over the last four decades, scientists have found overwhelming evidence that maintaining social connections is critical for living a long and healthy life. A 2010 meta-analysis, which combined data from many previous studies covering more than 300,000 people, showed that people with strong relationships are 50 percent more likely to live longer. An earlier study found that a lack of social connection is as deadly as smoking and obesity. In fact, study after study confirms the same thing. “The link between biology and social relationships is undeniable,” says Bert Uchino, a social psychologist at the University of Utah. 

While there are still questions about exactly how social relationships exert such power over our physical bodies, there is plenty that we do know. Uchino’s work has found that relationships—good, bad and ambivalent—are linked to blood pressure, coronary artery calcification, levels of cellular aging, and levels of inflammation. Others have shown that strong social networks protect against cognitive decline and dementia.

The extensive research on loneliness by the late social psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago generated a laundry list of consequences to perceived social isolation. In addition to increased mortality, he and his colleagues showed that lonely people suffer from increased depression, social withdrawal, decreased quality of sleep, elevated blood pressure, increased aggressiveness, and increased stress activity. Cacioppo also joined forces with Steve Cole, a genomicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, to show that social integration—or a lack of it—tweaks your immune system by changing the way genes are expressed in the immune system. Lonelier people are more susceptible to inflammation and viruses; socially integrated people are less susceptible to these things.  

Did I mention it is cold and flu season? In a surprising and seminal study from 1997,  Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University convinced 276 volunteers to let him shoot cold viruses up their noses and then live in a hotel for a week while Cohen and his colleagues waited to see who got sick. Those who were regularly in touch with a wider variety of people—parents, spouse, in-laws, siblings, colleagues, workmates, fellow volunteers, neighbors and so on—were less susceptible to the common cold. To be specific, those who regularly engaged with only one to three types of social ties were four times more likely to get sick than those who spoke regularly with people in six or more types of relationships. 

Despite all this powerful evidence, we rarely think of maintaining our social lives in the same way we think of maintaining diet and exercise—as part of taking care of your health. I can guess the reasons. Many of us resist being told what we “should” do. Thinking of friendship as something you have to do also risks taking some of the fun out of hanging out with people you like. And we are just so darn busy. We tend to put friends at the bottom of our list of priorities—after work and family. The problem with that approach is that the relationships that are best for our health are the high-quality ones. Those look a lot like good friendships: they are long-lasting, positive and cooperative, and not weighed down by mixed emotions.

Friendship should never feel like a chore. It is one of the great joys in life. But it should feel important and we should treat it that way. Why not set yourself some routine reminders to help you do that? When you plan your weekly workouts, also plan to see a friend. (Better yet, kill two birds with one stone and do your workout with a friend.) And when you get your annual flu shot, why not use it as an excuse to call someone you love who lives far away? Friendship is fundamental to your health. Plan accordingly. 

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Copyright: Lydia Denworth 2018.

References

Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton. "Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review." PLoS medicine 7.7 (2010): e1000316.https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

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