Posted on Dec 29, 2023, 1 p.m.
A recent study called “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review”, published in PLOS Medicine reviewing data from 148 studies suggests that spending more time in the friend zone nurturing positive connections can promote longevity, finding that developing strong social relationships is associated with living up to 7 years longer.
Humans by nature are social beings, but today’s modern life in industrialized countries has reduced both the quantity and quality of our social relationships. Many people no longer live among extended families or even live near each other, and many delay getting married and having children. People of all ages are choosing to live alone which is contributing to loneliness becoming increasingly common.
According to a survey recently conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, 10% of people report that they often feel lonely, one-third have a close friend or relative who they believe is very lonely, and 50% of the respondents think that in general people are becoming lonelier. Over the past twenty years, there has been a threefold increase in the number of people who say that they have no close confidants, and there is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated.
Research such as this is not done to solely gauge the mental health of others around us, it is also done to gauge physical health as well because studies show strong correlations between maintaining satisfying social relationships and conditions such as high blood pressure and morbidity. Physical well-being is impacted in part due to the release of the stress hormone cortisol which increases when we are feeling anxious or depressed. Cortisol suppresses functions that it determines to be non-essential in stressful situations which includes the immune system, digestion, and reproductive system. Cortisol can also increase glucose in the bloodstream and be a factor in headaches, muscle tension and pain, weight gain, sleep problems, memory and concentration impairments, as well as stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
This study was conducted to determine the extent to which social relationships influence the risk of mortality, which aspects of social relationships are most predictive, and which factors may help to moderate the risk of mortality. Data was collected from participant characteristics, including the cause of mortality, initial health status, and any pre-existing health conditions, as well as on study characteristics including length of follow-up and the type of assessment of participant social relationships.
According to the researchers, across all 148 studies involving 308,849 participants, the random effects of social relationships weighted average effect size was OR = 1.50 (95% CI 1.42 to 1.59), which indicates a 50% increased likelihood of survival for those with stronger social relationships, and these findings remained consistent across sex, age, initial health status, cause of death, and follow up period.
The researchers report finding significant differences across the type of social measurement evaluated (p<0.001), with the association being the strongest for complex measures of social integration (OR = 1.91; 95% CI 1.63 to 2.23) and the lowest being for binary indicators of residential status for living alone versus living with others (OR = 1.19; 95% CI 0.99 to 1.44).
Based on their findings the researchers concluded that the influence of social relationships on the risk for mortality is comparable with other well-established risk factors for mortality such as alcohol consumption and smoking status, and it exceeds the influence of other risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.
It was also noted that the overall effect of social relationships on mortality reported in this analysis might be an underestimate because many studies used a simple single-term measure of social isolation rather than a complex measurement. Despite this, the researchers believe that their findings help to “acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults”, and that people “should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality.”
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
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