A new study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reveals that there is a link between social relationships and health.
The more social ties people have at an early age, the better their health is at the beginnings and ends of their lives, according to a new study.
The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, links social relationships with concrete measures of physical wellbeing such as abdominal obesity, inflammation, and high blood pressure, which can lead to long-term health problems, including heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Adolescents and young adults should be encouraged to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active, states Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center (CPC).
The researchers found that the sheer size of a person’s social network was important for health in early and late adulthood. In adolescence, that is, 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, and not so important in middle adulthood, when the quality, not the quantity, of social relationships matters,” Harris states.
Harris, and her team, drew on data from four nationally representative surveys of the U.S. population that, together, covered the lifespan from adolescence to old age. They evaluated three dimensions of social relationships: social integration, social support and social strain. Then, they 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.
The National Institutes of Health and the University Cancer Research Fund at UNC Lineberger funded the study.