Health is usually considered an individual pursuit: you eat healthy and you exercise. According to a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, being healthy is more than what you do on your own. The study finds that an individual’s social ties have a significant impact on physical health. The results reveal that maintaining high quality relationships in middle age and a high quantity of relationships in adolescence and old age is linked to improved physical health. The findings highlight the importance of maintaining connections within one’s community throughout life.
Data came from four longitudinal studies, with a cumulative total of 14,000 participants at various life stages. Researchers collected data on the participants’ social lives and their physical health. To measure social health, they evaluated the participants’ number of friends, marital status, religious affiliation, and community involvement. They also looked at whether relationships had a balance between how much support they offered versus how much they demanded. To measure physical health, the researchers used four metrics: blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and levels of a protein linked to inflammation. These factors are indicators of the psychological effects of stress.
The size and quality of an individual’s social network affected different health measures at different points during life. For adolescents and the elderly, having a larger number of social ties was more important. Adolescents who were socially isolated had the same level of risk for developing inflammation as adolescents who did not exercise. Socially isolated older adults were at greater risk of developing hypertension than older adults with diabetes. For middle-aged adults (mid-30s through 50s), the quality of social connections was more significant than the quantity. In mid-adulthood, increased social strain amplified the odds of abdominal obesity and inflammation.
The research team is not sure how an individual’s social life affects physical health.
First author of the study, Yang Claire Yang, UNC professor and Carolina Population Center faculty fellow, suggests that people looking to be healthy “have a good and healthy diet, and exercise; but also have a good social life and connections with other people. Cultivate broad and somewhat deep, functional [relationships]. That’s as important, if not more—and don’t wait until you’re old.”
This research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.