Family and Friendships Can Reduce Risk of Early Death

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In a pooled analysis of 148 studies, researchers from Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found people who have strong ties to family, friends, or co-workers have a 50% lower risk of dying.

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad PhD and colleagues, the magnitude of the association puts social relationships on par with quitting smoking, maintenance of ideal weight and physical activity. In fact, whose who were socially isolated were found to have twice the risk of early death as being obese.

"The link between social relationships and mortality is currently much less understood than other risk factors," they wrote. "Nonetheless, there is substantial experimental, cross-sectional, and prospective evidence linking social relationships with multiple pathways associated with mortality."

The studies involved 308,849 participants with a mean age of 63.9. They were followed for an average of 7.5 years. Social relationships were categorized into structural groups such as marital or living status, number of social contacts, and social participation. They were also grouped by functionality, such as perceived social support and loneliness.

Read: Purposeful Talks, Interactive Relationships Make People Cheerful

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The strongest effect was shown when studies used complex measures of social integration, such as family and friendship connections, as opposed to a single factor, such as being married or living alone.

Social relationships may influence health by easing the negative effects of stress. Recent studies have indicated that in a stressful situation, blood pressure and heart rate will increase less when people are accompanied by a person who is close to them. Brain imaging also shows neurological differences between a person who is alone and a person who has support.

The immune system is also positively affected by strong social bonds. Studies have suggested that the immune system may be affected by stress hormones, catecholamines and glucocorticoids in particular, and keeping physiological stress in check can help keep the immune system strong.

Read: Social Support and Your Immune System

The finding of reduced mortality remained constant among all ages, genders, initial health status, cause of death and follow-up period. The authors write that this suggests that “the association between social relationships and mortality may be general, and efforts to reduce risk should not be isolated to subgroups, such as the elderly.”

“Relationships provide a level of protection across all ages,” said research co-author Timothy Smith

Source reference:
Holt-Lunstad J, et al "Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review" PLoS Med 2010; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.

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