Everyone and their mum's got a theory on how best to live longer - whether that's downing pints of green juice, undertaking daily meditation or running triathalons. But, as a new study from The University of North Carolina has shown, the key to a long, healthy life is really all about having good friends.
The study, recently published in the Proceedings Of The Natural Academy of Science, drew on data from four national US studies that encompassed more than 14,000 participants. All of the participants were surveyed at various stages in their lives to truly capture the state of their social lives and physical well-being. The study is the first to prove a concrete link between social relationships and definitive measures of physical – not just psychological – wellbeing, such as abdominal obesity, inflammation and high blood pressure.
The depth and breadth of your social connections aren't just good for clocking up likes on Instagram, as while researcher Yang Claire Yang admitted "what we don't quite know is how exactly do social connections get under the skin', the proof is irrefutable. For example, the study found that teenagers who are isolated socially are at the same risk as developing inflammation as their peers who don't exercise, while older adults are at a greater risk of developing hypertension from social isolation than they from diabetes. Social integration was even shown to be preventative against abdominal obesity in adolescence.
The same goes for adults – in mid-adulthood, the study showed that higher social strain is likely to make you pile on the pounds and it's a risk that only climbs with age and increased isolation. Interestingly, the team found that the actual size of a person’s social network was important for health in early and late adulthood. Put simply, you need more friends when you're very young and very old, but in the middle of your life, you're more invested in the quality of those friendships. Researcher Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center (CPC) explained, '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.'
Using markers such as numbers of friends, marital status, religious affiliation and community participation, the researchers were able to assess the participants' isolation level. Participants were asked whether their friends and family were critical, supportive, loving or argumentative (clearly, the study wasn't done over Christmas) to help build a picture of the nature of these social ties.
When paired up with with four specific health markers: blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference and a particular protein, called C-Reactive, which measures inflammation, the researchers were able to ascertain the relationship between relationships and our health.
'These markers, all together, are good markers of some of the physiological effects of stress — daily stress, not acute stress,' said Harris, 'The theory is the social relationships can buffer some of the effects of stress, and/or help with coping.'
'We studied the interplay between social relationships, behavioral factors and physiological dysregulation that, over time, lead to chronic diseases of aging — cancer being a prominent example,' Yang Claire Yang, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, CPC fellow and a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. '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.'
Hitting the gym and eating well will pay dividends for your health - but so will spending time with friends and investing in your inter-personal relationships. With that in mind, why don't you give your mum a call?