With commentary by Kathleen Mullan Harris, PhD, James Haar Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center.
Being socially connected to supportive people during your entire life bodes well for your health, new research finds, and may actually counteract some of the risks that accompany health problems such as diabetes.
"There is a fair amount of evidence now showing that social connections are important," says study co-author Kathleen Mullan Harris, PhD, James Haar Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center. Much of the research, however, has been among adults in late life, she says.
Her study looked at social connections and networks through the lifespan and found that social relationships are important for boosting health across the entire life span.
Harris says she has suspected for years that social networks aren't just important for older adults, who may experience a decline in their social connections as spouses and friends die. "I've been giving the aging people [researchers] a hard time, saying, 'You can't start studying aging at 50.'"
In her new research, she drew on information from four nationally representative surveys, including nearly 15,000 people, ages 12 to 98. The surveys included the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) for middle-age adults and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP for older adults.)
Harris and her colleagues looked at physical markers of health that can predict disease risk, such as high blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and high levels of C-reactive protein, linked with heart disease risk over time. They also looked at each participant's social support across four categories—friends, family, community and school (for younger people) or institutions such as church (for adults). They looked at the quality of the relationships—whether they offered support or strain.
The better the social connections, Harris says, the lower the likelihood of health risks. For young adults and those in late adulthood, the sheer size of the social network was important for health, the researchers found. A lack of social connections worsened the outlook for health.
For teens in the study, Harris says, the average number of connections in each category (family, friends, community, school) was a little over 2, so above this average would be considered ''enough'' connections for health benefits, she says. Those who had 3 or 4 in all categories would be considered highly connected. For older adults, the numbers are about the same, although a little higher, she says, mainly because spouses or co-habiting partners are included in the social connection count.
For teens, social isolation boosted the risk of inflammation (which raises risk for heart disease and other problems over the years) by the same amount as being sedentary.
"The increase in inflammation does not have an immediate impact on the risk of heart attack,'' Harris says. "But over time, continued social isolation, resulting in continued high inflammation will indeed increase risks for heart attack." It's not known, of course, how long that process takes, she says.
For those in late adulthood, the effect of social isolation on boosting their risk of high blood pressure was higher than that of clinical risk factors such as diabetes. Harris puts that into perspective this way. "Having diabetes of course increases your risk of high blood pressure, but so does social isolation," Harris explains. "So in a sense, if you have diabetes and you’re highly connected and engaged in social activity, with the environment, family, neighbors and friends, in some sense you are really counteracting some of that risk [of the diabetes]."
For middle-age adults, she says, ''it wasn't the number of connections but what those ties give you in terms of social support.'' She says middle-age adults typically have many social connections, including their children's friends and parents, their own aging parents, as well as their own friends and neighbors. What's important at this stage, Harris found, is whether all those connections are giving you support—or adding to your strain.
Despite finding these differences over the life span, Harris says one thing is clear: "Social isolation causes poor health."
And good social connections bolster health, she sad. How? "Social connections buffer people from the effects of stress, daily stress," she says. Without that buffer, someone to vent to at the end of a long, hard day, for instance, the effects of stress on your body won't be decreased, and instead could lead to the risk factors that progress to disease, such as high blood pressure.
The new research adds a unique perspective, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, Provo, who has also researched social connections and health.
Looking at the importance of social connections in the pre-teen years gives valuable information, she says. "This developmental perspective is particularly important," she says.
The ''dose response" found by the researchers is also important, she says. The more interaction, the better the markers for disease improved. Evaluating social strain, a less-researched area, shows that the quality of the social connections do matter, Holt-Lunstad says.
Bottom line? "We need to take our relationships seriously for our health," she says.