It seems like we are always in the midst of a new health craze. Doing juice cleanses, going gluten-free, adopting the lifestyle of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors... But should we be looking in a completely different direction for the key to living a long, healthy life? Research has shown that an individual’s number of personal relationships drastically affects not only when and how we get sick, but also how we get better, and how long we stay that way.
In a study conducted by Cohen, Doyle, Skoner, Rabin, & Gwaltney in 1997, they looked at how social connectedness affects the likelihood of someone contracting a cold. While analyzing how many social roles the participants had, ie. parent, spouse, sibling, member of organization, co-worker, etc., the scientists exposed participants to infectious agents that caused the common cold. They found that the more social roles someone fulfills, and thus the more connected they are, the less susceptible to the infectious agent they were.
The link between social integration and health is not limited to the short term. Scientists have also scrutinized survival rates from heart attacks, cancer recurrence, cognitive decline, and mortality rates and found that the more socially integrated individuals are, the longer they survive. In fact, so plentiful are the studies linking health and social connections, that in 2010 researchers from BYU and UNC decided to do a meta-analysis on the research done regarding this topic going back to the early 20th century. They analyzed results from 148 separate studies and their findings were truly amazing. They discovered that having a robust social life may be as good for you as giving up a 15 cigarette-a-day smoking habit. The increase in lifespan of those with a healthy social life was larger than the risk of death associated with health factors like obesity and lack of exercise. In other words, maintaining friendships could be more important to your health than eating right, exercising, and avoiding dangerous behaviors.
While this information, tested as it has been throughout the decades, is no surprise to those working in the field, social ties are still not emphasized as a very important health factor. As Cecile Andrews, author and former scholar affiliated with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research said in an interview with BeWell@Stanford, “Our culture values hard work, success, and wealth, so it’s no surprise some of us do not set aside enough time for social ties when we think security lies in material things rather than other people.” Though research clearly shows that social integration will keep us living longer and healthier, our society still sees an hour at the gym as far more important than an hour spent catching up with a friend. In fact, it is these social activities, like a night out with friends or a long lunch with co-workers, that are often seen as distractions from healthier pursuits like sleep and exercise.
This trend can change, we just need to reevaluate our priorities. Maybe prescriptions shouldn’t just be for a month of medication, but also for three hours of good conversation. Therapy doesn’t have to be with hired professionals, but also over coffee with colleagues. We can’t only push the limits of our bodies with exercise, we need to test our comfort zones by starting groups and interacting with new people. Only when we find ways to integrate our need for social interaction with our busy, ever-changing demands can we achieve a truly happy and healthy life.