The Importance of Social Connection for a Long, Healthy Life

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If you’re a follower of health information and trends, you already know there are a myriad of ways to improve your health. You can stop smoking, take high-quality supplements, start a new exercise practice, or eat more nutritious foods. But are you aware that simply by maintaining social connection (i.e., meaningful relationships) in your life you will be setting yourself up for improved longevity and better health?

It should come as no surprise that we humans are innately social creatures. Our connections and relationships with other people give our lives value, relevance, and meaning.

In our relationships we are guided and assisted, entertained, inspired, and supported by the people in our social network. Without social connection, most people will feel lonely and alone in a cold, joyless world.

Lack of Social Relationships Even Increases Your Risk of Death

The knowledge that social connection influences both our health and how long we live is not new. As far back as the 1900s, researchers found that a lack of good social relationships increased the risk of death by at least 50% [1].

A recent study done at the University of South Carolina, Chapel Hill [2], found that a higher degree of social integration was associated with a lower risk of health problems, both early on and later in life.

Conversely, a lack of social connection was associated with vastly elevated inflammation levels of the same magnitude as being physically inactive, at least in adolescence.

In old age, the effect of social isolation increased levels of hypertension and, in fact, exceeded risk factors such as diabetes. And, as one might expect, negative social connections, such as an abusive spouse or a narcissistic parent can actually harm our health.

Loneliness Is Toxic

A 2018 review of medical research conducted at Brigham Young University in Utah [3] confirmed the above study findings – that our social connections with others have a powerful influence on our health and longevity. Researchers even went so far as to state “lacking social connection qualifies as a risk factor for premature mortality.”

woman sitting on bed feeling depressed

Social isolation – not having many, or indeed any, friends upon whom you can rely – is hard on us. In animal research, rats, who are very social creatures, suffer and are stressed when they are kept by themselves in cages.

Loneliness and lack of sociability has been shown to lead to chronic immune, neuroendocrine, and metabolic disorders which can, in turn, lead to cardiovascular problems, tumor growth, and other common age-related diseases. This is such an important topic that the World Health Organization (WHO) now lists “Social Support Networks” as a determinant of health [4].

The Young and the Old Benefit the Most from Social Support

Having and maintaining good social connections is especially important for younger people and for the elderly. For these two age groups, good social connections play more of a vital role in protecting health than it does for adults at mid-life.

happy family smiling

People in their 40s and 50s aren’t quite so much at risk, being more naturally involved in multiple social networks including the friends they have cultivated, work colleagues, their children and aging parents, as well as community involvement [5].

Close Relationships Protect Health, Improve Happiness and Longevity

As we age, having a close relationship with a partner or spouse also appears to offer some protection from the problems of aging. Dr. Robert Waldinger is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the fourth director of a decades-long study known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development [6].

Possibly the longest-running study in history, this research was begun in 1938, originally with 268 Harvard sophomores, including John F. Kennedy, who would eventually become America’s 35th president.

The study was later expanded to include a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods so that researchers could involve both economically advantaged and disadvantaged individuals. From the original 700 or so original participants, around 60 are still taking part in the ongoing study and are now in their 90s.

elderly-man-filling-out-survey

The research has (and still continues) to include interviewing the men in person, collecting individual health details, getting brain scans, obtaining blood samples, and asking them questions about their lives, and their mental and emotional health. Their children were/are also interviewed, and video recordings have been made of the men talking with their wives about important concerns. About 10 years ago, the wives of the men were also included in the study.

Strong Relationships Are More Important Than Money & Fame

mature-couple-hugging-at-kitchen-table-happy-laughing

Although the study is ongoing, according to Dr. Waldinger the results have been quite consistent. Regardless of the jobs these men held, their income status, their social background or upbringing, what made these men happy in their older years were their social connections, much more so than money or fame.

If they were more socially connected to their friends, their family, and their community, they were generally happier, healthier, and lived longer.

Dr. Waldinger also noticed that having a good relationship didn’t just protect the body, it also protected the brain. “Being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective. Those people’s memories stay sharper for longer,” says Dr. Waldinger.

And it didn’t even matter if the people in the relationship bickered constantly – as long as they felt like they could count on one another, the arguments didn’t alter the outcome.

On the other hand, Dr. Waldinger says, “People in relationships who feel that they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline [7].”

patient-lying-in-hospital-bed

Those who struggled with loneliness had more health problems earlier in their lives, and the more isolated participants had an increasingly rapid onset of brain function decline, felt more physical pain, and they tended to live shorter lives than those who were not lonely.

The other thing that Dr. Waldinger noticed was that those who had conflicted relationships also tended to suffer from ill health. The people in the study who were most satisfied in their relationships around mid-life were also the healthiest at age 80. Even when the elderly participants who were happily partnered had more physical pain, they managed to still feel happy [8].

What Telomeres Tell Us About Good Health & Longevity

Scientists have been looking deeply into what is happening, biochemically, that could be creating this premature aging effect when a person feels stressed, lonely, and disconnected. The answer may very well lie right at the level of our DNA.

In our article “Telomeres and Aging: How Perceived Stress Impacts Your Health,” we shared the research of Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and her ground-breaking book The Telomere Effect [9].

telomere

Dr. Blackburn’s life work has been her study of telomeres, the protective caps that appear on the ends of our chromosomes, and their role in human health. Simply stated, telomeres protect our DNA by keeping genetic material from “unraveling” – a little like the protective plastic tips on shoelace ends.

When telomeres are healthy and well maintained, they’re longer. Cells with longer telomeres are better able to renew, and this has been observed with those in good health. These people tend to feel more energetic and look younger. However, when telomeres are not healthy, they’re shorter, and those with shorter telomeres tend to look older, feel older, and suffer from health problems.

Dr. Blackburn teaches that telomeres act somewhat like canaries in a coal mine – they’re vulnerable to a number of things and their length is an indicator of relative health. Longer telomere length equates to good health and longevity.

What Keeps Telemores Long?

So, what is it that helps to keep our telomeres long, healthy, and well maintained? Quite a few things, actually. Good genetics, as might be expected, because our propensity for having good telomeres can be passed down from our parents. Other factors that help keep telomeres long include:

healthy-happy-woman-eating-salad
  • having a good attitude
  • dealing with stressors effectively
  • taking time for meditation and exercise
  • avoiding toxic chemicals
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • getting good sleep
  • eating well

On the other hand, shorter telomeres were found in people who [10]:

  • had a negative attitude
  • did not manage stress well
  • had an abundance of stress about which they could do nothing
  • didn’t exercise
  • slept poorly
  • had toxic chemical contact
  • were overweight
  • consumed poor-quality food

But What About Telomeres and Social Connection?

Is there a link between telomere length and relationships? Not surprisingly, it has been found that having a good relationship with another person is associated with healthier, longer telomeres.

happy-smiling-asian-senior-couple-dancing

A 2016 study [11] found that those who were separated or divorced had shorter telomeres than people who were married for a long time. Married people, or people living with a partner, tended to have longer telomeres [12, 13].

Mirroring Dr. Waldinger’s findings that older, happily married couples enjoy better health, a 2013 meta-analysis of over 19,000 people [14] also found that happily married couples had longer telomere lengths.

While time spent with family and friends may not seem glamorous or exciting, it turns out that our good friends and supportive, positive relationships provide us with a lot more than we might realize when it comes to lowering our risk of disease and improving our long-term health!


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Article Summary

  • Maintaining social connection (meaningful relationships) is vital for good health and longevity.

  • Loneliness and lack of sociability has been shown to lead to chronic immune, neuroendocrine, and metabolic disorders which can, in turn, lead to cardiovascular problems, tumor growth, and other common age-related diseases.

  • Having and maintaining good social connections is especially important for younger people and the elderly.

  • Having good relationships protects the brain and helps memory stay sharper for longer.

  • Having a good relationship with another person is also associated with healthier, longer telomeres. Longer telomere length equates to good health and longevity.

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