JAN 10, 2016 2:20 PM PST

Friends are as Important for Physical Health as Diet and Exercise

WRITTEN BY: Julianne Chiaet
Being social is good your physical well-being

A new study finds that the quantity and the quality of our personal relationships, at different points of our lives, impacts our health just as much as diet and exercise. 

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, builds on two decades of previous research that points to causal associations between social relationships and mortality. It is the first to link social relationships with measurable aspects of physical well-being. Inflammation, high blood pressure, and abdominal obesity were all taken into consideration. These issues could lead to long-term health problems, such as heart disease and cancer. The researchers looked at when the effects on health took place and how long those effects lasted. 

Sociologist Kathleen Mullan Harris and a team of UNC-Chapel Hill researchers drew on data from four nationally representative surveys of the U.S. population. Altogether, the surveys covered over 14,000 participants at different life stages from adolescence to old age. The researchers looked at the number of friends each person had, their community involvement, whether they were married, and whether they were religiously affiliated. They looked at the quality of each person's relationships. Did the person find their relationships to be critical and supportive? Or, did they find their friends and relatives to be troublesome and argumentative? 

The team then looked at how each participant's social relationships related to the four key mortality risk markers: blood pressure, abdominal fat, BMI, and inflammation. 

The researchers found that the size of a person's social network is most important for a person's health when they are in their teens and old age. Social isolation causes teens to have an increased risk of inflammation by the same amount as teens who don't exercise. Social integration as a teen also protects against abdominal obesity. Social isolation in old age is more harmful to developing and controlling hypertension than diabetes. 

For participants in their mid-30s to 50s, the number of social connections didn't matter. What mattered was the quality of those connections and whether they provided social support or strain. Harris guesses that quality matters more than quantity for this age group because they are maintaining relationships with their children and parents. Thus, they have a large social network by default.

The medical field should encourage teens and young adults “to build broad social relationships and [develop] social skills for interacting with others,” Harris said. Strong social bonds are critical for our physical well-being throughout the course of our lives.

So force yourself to get involved in social activities. Invite your friends over. Hang out with people who make you feel good and cut ties with those who make your life harder. It’s good for you.
 

Sources: EurekAlert! press releases via University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span” via PNAS
 
About the Author
  • Julianne (@JuliChiaet) covers health and medicine for LabRoots. Her work has been published in The Daily Beast, Scientific American, and MailOnline. While primarily a science journalist, she has also covered culture and Japanese organized crime. She is the New York Board Representative for the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA). • To read more of her writing, or to send her a message, go to Jchiaet.com
You May Also Like
JAN 19, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
JAN 19, 2020
Scientists Create Neuromuscular Organoids That Contract
This work is a breakthrough for the study of neuromuscular diseases including ALS, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis....
JAN 23, 2020
Health & Medicine
JAN 23, 2020
Yes, Stress Can Turn Your Hair Gray
Stress and gray hair have always been closely associated, and now, scientists from Harvard have discovered the physiological mechanism that validates this...
FEB 02, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
FEB 02, 2020
New T Cell Therapy is a Universal Approach to Target Cancer
For years, researchers have been trying to harness the power of the assassins of the immune system - killer T cells....
FEB 06, 2020
Health & Medicine
FEB 06, 2020
Scientists Found a Safe BPA Alternative
BPA—bisphenol A—is an industrial chemical used in a wide range of everyday consumer products. From food and beverage can linings and storage co...
FEB 12, 2020
Drug Discovery & Development
FEB 12, 2020
Does Traditional Chinese Medicine Work Against Coronavirus?
Over 45,000 cases of Wuhan Coronavirus have been reported globally, alongside over 1,100 deaths. Although over 4,700 people are said to have recovered from...
FEB 18, 2020
Microbiology
FEB 18, 2020
Coronavirus Illness COVID-19 Has Now Caused Over 2,000 Deaths
The outbreak of COVID-19 disease caused by a novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 has now claimed 2,005 lives and caused at least 75,079 cases....
Loading Comments...