When it comes to health and longevity, the guidelines are pretty well-established: Maintain a healthy weight and eating pattern, exercise, practice good sleep hygiene, and refrain from using cigarettes or excess alcohol. Yet research tells us there’s another crucial aspect to good health that is just as important and often overlooked: socializing.
Studies show that cultivating social connections has significant physical, mental health, and cognitive benefits, and that it may be an even more important driver of longevity than other well-known factors.
Let’s take a look at the science around socializing.
Benefits of socializing
Socializing can mean the difference in keeping mental agility as one ages. Northwestern University is studying a rare group of individuals known as cognitive "super agers"—people aged 80 or older who have the mental agility of middle-aged individuals. They perform demonstrably better on memory tests, such as remembering past events or recalling lists of words, compared with other adults their age. One recent study of super agers found what set them apart from their cognitively average peers is their far higher levels of positive social relationships, according to the report published in PLOS One. Authors concluded that positive social relationships may be an important factor for exceptional cognitive aging.
Landmark research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, analyzed worldwide data measuring subjects’ social participation, perception of support, and relationship satisfaction, to see if their degree of social connectedness predicted mortality. Nearly 309,000 people were followed for an average of 7.5 years.
What did they find? Individuals with adequate social relationships were a whopping 50% more likely to survive compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The effect of social connectedness was comparable with quitting smoking. In fact, it exceeded many well-known risk factors for mortality, including air pollution, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption (more than six drinks a day), and physical inactivity, according to the report in PLOS One.
“My research suggests that one of the single best things that you can do for your health is to nurture your relationships,” Holt-Lunstad said in a recent TED Talk. “I’m not claiming that if you have close intimate relationships with friends and family that you can still smoke, quit exercising, or forgo life-saving treatments, or that we should stop caring about any of these things. Each of these will also significantly increase your risk of dying. Rather, what I am arguing is that we need to take our social relationships just as seriously for our health as we do these other things.”
To understand the role of optimism in longevity, read The one thing that can help you live longer on MDLinx.
Detriments of loneliness
The benefits of socializing can also be seen by examining its flip side: social isolation and loneliness. A recent report focusing on people aged 50 and up by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that more than one-third of US adults aged 45 and older feel lonely. In addition, nearly one-quarter of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Other findings include the following:
Social isolation was linked with a 50% increased risk of dementia.
Poor social connectedness was associated with a 29% higher risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
Loneliness was correlated with elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
In heart failure patients, loneliness was linked with a nearly four times increased risk of death, 68% higher risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
Immigrant and LGBTQ individuals are at greater risk for experiencing isolation and loneliness.
Boosting social relationships
The good news is that people generally are social by nature, and high-quality social relationships can help them live longer, healthier lives. It may be especially important for people in the United States to look for opportunities to socialize beyond their own home. That’s because Americans are far more likely to live alone or with just one or two other family members; just 11% live with extended family, compared to 39% of people globally, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.
Experts recommend boosting social contact by starting up conversations with people as you go about your day-to-day life; setting up a standing weekly brunch or coffee date with a friend; getting involved with volunteer work; taking a class to learn a new skill, or participating in community and social groups, such as choirs, book clubs, athletic activities, or church groups.
For more on this topic, read 5 evidence-based paths to happiness on MDLinx.