New research has provided more evidence that relationships affect health (read our previous posts on this subject here).1 The researchers examined data from four large-scale studies that collectively followed thousands of Americans over time. One of the studies followed adolescents, another followed young-to-mid-adults (aged 25-64), and the last two followed older adults (aged 50+), resulting in more than 14,000 participants across the lifespan. Each study measured various aspects of individuals’ social relationships, such as social support (e.g., reliability of family members), social integration (e.g., frequency of contact with other people), and social strain (e.g., frequency of criticism from friends). Each study also included health outcome measures such as blood pressure, waist circumference, and body mass. These outcomes are associated with how the body responds to stress and are predictive of disease and mortality.
Overall, the researchers found that the more socially integrated people were (i.e., the more they socialized with others and different kinds of others) and the better quality their relationships (i.e., with lots of social support and little social strain), the better their health throughout the lifespan.
Here are five highlights:
- People (including adolescents!) had lower blood pressure when they spent more (vs. less) time with other people (i.e., were more socially integrated).
- Adolescents were less likely to be obese when they spent more (vs. less) time with other people (i.e., were more socially integrated).
- Adults were less likely to be obese when they had more (vs. less) social support.
- Alternatively, adults were more likely to be obese when they had more (vs. less) social strain. These obesity findings held even when the researchers took into account whether or not people smoked, exercised, drank alcohol, had diabetes, were stressed, and took certain medications.
- Older adults were more likely to develop hypertension (high blood pressure) if they spent less time with other people (i.e., were less socially integrated). AND, the link between hypertension and (lack of) social integration was STRONGER than the link between hypertension and diabetes (a known risk factor for hypertension).
This study is the first to examine the associations between relationships and health in a very large number of people over the lifespan. It demonstrates that relationships affect our physiology (e.g., our blood pressure) and that helps explain why relationships are associated with illness and mortality. So people who have a supportive social network and socialize more (in positive ways) tend to have better health, and thus, a lower disease rate. Alternatively, people who do not have a supportive social network, are lonely, and don’t go out tend to have worse health, and thus, have a higher disease rate. Together, this research shows that our relationships can affect our health a great deal and should be taken seriously.
If you’re feeling lonely, volunteering is a good way to meet friends. You’ll feel good because you’re contributing to a cause you value, you’ll meet others who share your interests, and there’s a chance that you’ll positively affect your health!
1Yang, C. Y., Boen, C., Gerken, K., Li, T., Schorpp, K., & Mullan Harris, K. (2016). Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1511085112
Dr. Lisa Hoplock – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa’s research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations — situations affording both rewards and costs — such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals.