A friend a day keeps the doctor away

A review of 148 studies involving more than 300 000 people, found that feeling socially connected reduces premature death by 50%.

Conversely, chronic loneliness can damage our health to the tune of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is more harmful than obesity, high blood pressure and lack of physical exercise. It also makes people more likely to develop depression, heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer and dementia. In the early days of HIV, physicians noted that gay men who feared being spurned and ostracised and had not come out about their sexual orientation, died much more quickly than men who were open about their sexuality.

What matters more: quantity or quality of social relationships? The larger and more diverse our social circle, the more stimulating it is for our brain. Engaging with people of various ages and opinions broadens our perspective and challenges us to entertain divergent points of view. All this provides excellent mental gymnastics. However, the most crucial factor for our overall health is the quality of our relationships. Interactions that promote anxiety or leave us feeling stressed and unvalued, erode both physical and mental health. Even one negative encounter with someone who is important to us impairs our immune system.. Forty-two married couples aged 22 to 77 participated in an experiment that measured the speed of wound healing. Each couple agreed to have a blister induced on their forearm on two occasions. On the first occasion, the couple were guided through a positive interaction; on the second visit, they were asked to talk about a disagreement. To the amazement of doctors and nurses, the blisters healed more slowly following conflict than after a pleasant interaction. Couples who were more hostile to each other during both visits healed at 60% the rate of happier couples. That means it took them nearly twice as long to heal.   

Another study found that wound healing took an average of nine days longer in women having a stressful time caring for someone with dementia compared with women who had no such stress in their relationships. These findings are remarkable. They indicate that health professionals and policy makers need to take loneliness and poor social relationships as seriously as smoking and excessive drinking. Healing our relationships is a key step in improving our health on every level.

Given that we’re facing a worldwide epidemic of loneliness — even in the absence of Covid-19 – what can we do to bring about positive change?

Why not start spreading the word about the importance of feeling socially connected? Tell people about the noteworthy studies I’ve mentioned in this and the previous Health-e-Byte. They’re a great conversation starter.

Secondly, ask not what others can do for you, but what you can do for others. In a British study exploring what promotes happiness, volunteers were given either £2.50 or £10 and instructed to spend the money on themselves or someone else. Which group felt happier afterwards? Regardless of the amount of money, those who spent it on someone else felt happier than those who spent it on themselves. We get a buzz from being kind and doing things for others — as long as we don’t feel used or taken for granted. The key is giving willingly and seeing the positive difference we can make to someone.

Never doubt your ability to contribute to others. Anything we can give is better than not giving at all — even if it’s ‘just’ a few minutes of your time or forwarding this article.

Please forward this Health-e-Byte to anyone you’d like to thank for their friendship.

Click below to read other Health-e-Bytes in this relationship series:

Part 1 – What’s been missing?

Part 3 – What boosts our brain more than vitamins and minerals?

Part 4 – What’s the most powerful habit that prolongs life?

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