How often do you see friends or family? Go to a sports club or church group? If the answer is rarely, then you need to get out more. Being socially isolated is terribly unhealthy. Studies since the 1980s have shown that if you haven’t got friends, family or community ties, your chance of dying early may be 50% higher than if you did. Social isolation is now being touted as similarly detrimental to health as smoking or not taking exercise.
While most studies have concentrated on people around the age of 60, research in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has looked at adolescents, “middle adulthood” and older people. The researchers used data from American national surveys and compared how socially connected and supported people felt with markers of disease – blood pressure, body mass index, waist size and C-reactive protein levels (a measure of inflammation). They asked many questions, including how often people saw their families, how close they felt to their mothers, their “friend count” and how much their spouse cared about them.
Acknowledging that being social can be a double-edged sword, there were also questions on whether friends made too many demands. Overall, the results showed that social relationships reduced the risk of having markers of disease at every stage of life. In adolescence, social isolation increased the risk of having higher levels of C-reactive protein. In middle adulthood, when people are more likely to interact at work and their children’s school, the quality of the connections mattered more than the number, and protected them from obesity.
Researchers talk of social isolation getting under the skin to influence the regulation of our hormonal and metabolic systems. Kathleen Mullan Harris one of the designers of the research, says that knowing someone is “watching your back” if, for example, there’s a twister coming (she lives in North Carolina) reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Without social interaction and support, she says, the body is chronically exposed to these hormones, which increases the risks of high blood pressure, a fat waist, diabetes and heart disease.
But what if you are happy being on your own? While there may be some happy loners, Mullan Harris does not think there are enough to affect her study. A meta-analysis in PLOS Medicine of the link between levels of social relationships and morbidity and mortality cited the saddest study ever, which in 1945 found that infants in orphanages were more likely to die if they did not have social interaction. Being social is not always easy – particularly for older people. But for those of us who can modify this risk factor, we should remember that seeing friends and family and supporting your partner is at least as good for us as broccoli.