Got Friends? The Connection Between Social Support and Health

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It can be easy to think of health, fitness and well-being as being directly impacted by our diet and lifestyle choices and not much else. Some might go further to include stress-relieving activities such as meditation, yoga, or spending time in nature when thinking about what directly affects their overall health and well-being. 

Funnily enough, the one thing that could make a huge impact is one that most people don’t consider at all having a direct affect on their health and that is their relationships, social life and community or lack thereof. Humans need other humans. Introvert or Extrovert, we all crave some level of interaction and inclusion.

You can perfect your diet to a tee, take all the right supplements and spend every waking moment at the gym, but if you don’t have strong relationships in your life; you may be hindering all of your efforts.

Why is having social support so important for our health?

Studies have shown that people who have strong relationships and feel like they are supported by others in a community have stronger immunity and overall health markers than those who do not. This in turn, keeps them healthier and less susceptible to disease and inflammation. “As humans, we have many different regulatory systems — blood pressure, metabolism, stress hormones,” says Teresa Ellen Seeman, professor of medicine at the UCLA School of Public Health. “There are data that suggest all these systems are affected by social relationships. People who report more supportive and positive social relationships have …. lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, better glucose metabolism and lower levels of various stress hormones.”

Another reason social support is important for health is that it is a proponent of longevity. Researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were able to combine information collected from 148 different studies with over 300,000 subjects and an average study length of 7.5 years. They found that subjects who had social support, defined as “friends, family and community involvement” had a 50% decrease in the likelihood of death during the study duration than those who had a lack of social support. The authors of the study stated that this 50 % decrease was on a par with quitting smoking in its impact on health. The authors stated that, “The link between social support and mortality risk was found for men and women of all ages, regardless of initial health condition, years of a study or cause of death.”

Those who do not have strong relationships with friends, family and feel a part of a community has been linked to poorer health. Depression and loneliness are big issues in our current society. Thanks to modern technology such as remote jobs, online shopping, and social media people can be as isolated as they want to be. This can aid in convenience of course, but it can also result in severe isolation for those who might not seek out community for themselves. 

There was a study done in 2012 by the Archives of Internal Medicine which found that older people who would consider themselves to be “lonely” encountered a higher risk of losing the ability to do everyday actives like walking or climbing up steps by 56% and a higher risk of death by 45%. Another study also conducted in 2012 on breast cancer patients found that those who would describe themselves as lacking social connections had increased pain, fatigue and felt more depressed than those who had adequate social support.

Researchers from the University of Chicago found in a study of 229 people lasting 5 years that the fact that someone was lonely could be connected to them having high blood pressure years later. Thus making the case that being isolated can have long-term effects on your health.

In addition to loneliness and depression, just as good social support bolsters your immune system and protects against disease and inflammation, a lack of social support has been shown to do the opposite. 

It is interesting to note that when it comes to having social support and feeling connected to others, it is not about the number of relationships you have, but rather the strength and depth of those relationships. You can have a lot of people in your social circle and still feel disconnected and even lonely if those relationships are not strong and supportive. Quality over quantity is definitely the case when it comes to benefitting your social support network.

Another point of interest when thinking about the impact of social connectedness is what about social media? Does the fact that you have over 1000 Facebook friends and people commonly like and comment on your Instagram or Twitter posts mean that you have social support? I think that social media is a helpful tool to keep in touch with people you wouldn’t otherwise see in your daily life, but I also think it can become dangerous if we start to replace real-life interactions and relationship building opportunities with our online community. There is just something irreplaceable about being with friends and family in person, laughing and enjoying one another’s company.

So do your health a favor, go out with some friends, make a coffee/tea date with someone or plan a trip to see family!

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