Socialising is good for us: a large circle of friends protects against poor health

News & Analysis

7th January 2016

A healthy social life is as important for longevity as diet and exercise, according to a study from the University of North Carolina. It is the first study of its kind to link social relationships with physical health factors.

The study, which was published in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates that social relationships reduce health risks at every stage of life.

Kathleen Mullan Harris of the Carolina Population Centre 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 healthily and be physically active.’

The researchers found that social isolation in adolescence increased the risk of inflammation by the same amount as physical inactivity. They also found that in old age, social isolation is more harmful to health than diabetes on developing and controlling hypertension.

The researchers discovered that during the middle of a person’s life, the level of support they receive from their social contacts is more important than the size of their social circle.

‘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.

The study looked at data from four nationally representative surveys of the US population. They evaluated three dimensions of social relationships: social integration, social support and social strain. They then studied how these relationships were associated with key mortality risk markers, including blood pressure, waist circumference and body mass index.

Yang Claire Yang, one of the study’s authors, said: ‘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.’