Social ties are as important to your long-term health as exercise and healthy eating, a new study suggests.
“Our analysis makes it clear that doctors, clinicians, and other health workers should redouble their efforts to help the public understand how important strong social bonds are throughout the course of all of our lives,” study co-author Yang Claire Yang, a professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, said in a university news release.
For the study, the investigators analyzed data from four surveys of Americans who ranged from adolescents to seniors. First, they looked at social integration, social support and social strain. They then evaluated four indicators of health — blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index and systemic inflammation — that are linked to heart disease, stroke, cancer and other diseases
The more social ties people had at a young age, the better their health early and late in life, the researchers found.
The study was published Jan. 4 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Study co-author Kathleen Mullan Harris, also a professor at UNC, said, “Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active.”
Previous research has shown that older adults live longer if they have a larger social network. This study suggests social links reduce health risks in each stage of life, the study authors explained.
In teens, social isolation is as great a risk for inflammation as physical inactivity, while having a strong social network appears to protect against abdominal obesity, the researchers found.
In seniors, social isolation is more of a threat than diabetes in the development and control of high blood pressure, the study authors said.
In middle adulthood, it isn’t the number of social links that matter, but rather the quality.
“The relationship between health and the degree to which people are integrated in large social networks is strongest at the beginning and at the end of life, and not so important in middle adulthood, when the quality, not the quantity, of social relationships matters,” Harris said.
While the study showed an association between strong social ties and better health, it didn’t establish cause-and-effect.
The American Psychological Association has more about social networks.