Having a lot of healthy social relationships during adolescence and late adulthood could help you lead a healthy life, a new study suggests.
The study is the first to link social relationships with measures of physical wellbeing such as abdominal obesity, inflammation, and high blood pressure, all of which can lead to heart diseases, stroke and cancer.
The study not only provides new insights into the biological mechanisms that prolong life but also shows how social relationships reduce health risk in each stage of life.
Specifically, the team found that the sheer size of a person’s social network was important for health in early and late adulthood.
In adolescence, social isolation increased risk of inflammation by the same amount as physical inactivity, while social integration protected against abdominal obesity.
In old age, social isolation was actually more harmful to health than diabetes on developing and controlling hypertension.
In middle adulthood, it wasn’t the number of social connections that mattered, but what those connections provided in terms of social support or strain. “The relationship between health and the degree to which people are integrated in large social networks is strongest at the beginning and at the end of life,” said professor Kathleen Mullan Harris.
The researchers drew on data from four surveys of the US population that covered the lifespan from adolescence to old age. They evaluated three dimensions of social relationships -social integration, social support and social strain.
They then studied how individual’s social relationships were associated with four markers shown to be key markers for mortality risk -blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index and circulating levels of C-reactive protein, which is a measure of systemic inflammation.