Six Ways Social Life Influences Health

I once heard it said, “If you want to see where you will be in the next six months, look at the lives of the people you are hanging out with this weekend.”  

We all have heard some advice on the importance of those with whom we dwell. The quality of our friendships matter and lacking that sense of community can be detrimental to our health. 

Here is how:

1.  Lack of Social Bonds Doubles the Risk of Death from All Causes  

In 2010, U.S. researchers conducted 148 studies containing more than 308,000 people that concluded that lacking strong social bonds doubles the risk of death from all causes.  [Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review]

2. Social Isolation is as Dangerous as Obesity, Inactivity, and Smoking.

 James House, in an analysis for the journal [Science | AAAS], concluded that social isolation is as dangerous for health as drinking, obesity, inactivity, and smoking. Additionally, in Western societies, at least, social isolation can actually be more dangerous than a lack of exercise or obesity.  [Social relationships and health.  - PubMed - NCBI]

3. Higher Stress and Inflammation 

 Lack of social ties can be toxic over time: even if individuals score low on conventional measures of stress, lonely people have high baseline levels of stress hormones and inflammation, with all of the health problems that entails. [Social isolation.  - PubMed - NCBI]
[Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms.  - PubMed - NCBI]

Social support can be a great asset to shield us against difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, those without it are much more susceptible to other stresses when they come.
Inflammation is the root cause of most diseases [Inflammation at the Root of Most Diseases]:
        * Alzheimer’s
        * asthma
        * arthritis
        * Crohn’s disease
        * Cancer
        * cardiovascular disease
        * diabetes
        * high blood pressure
        * high cholesterol levels
        * Parkinson’s disease
        * and much more

4. Being Around People Isn’t Enough / Type of Crowd Matters 

John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, and author of the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, believes social isolation is a matter of life and death. 

He goes on to point out that if we don’t feel cared for, we can feel lonely even when surrounded by others. This can take place at college, on a crowded bus, or in a strained marriage. After all, being among a hostile tribe is just as dangerous as being alone. The effects of loneliness depend not on the number of physical contacts we have but how isolated we feel. You might have only one or two close friends, but if you feel satisfied and supported there is no need to worry about the effects on your health. Heal thyself: Trust people | New Scientist

5. Chronic Loneliness Reshapes the Brain, Social Skills, and DNA

Chronic loneliness, like stress, reshapes the brain due to neuroplasticity. This chronic loneliness is making people more sensitive to social threat. This creates a downward cycle changing their pattern of thoughts.

Lonely people rate social experiences more negatively, are less trusting of others, judge them more harshly. There is an evolutionary logic to this too: in a hostile social situation, it is vital to be alert to betrayal and potential harm. But it can make lonely people reluctant to reach out to others further hurting the cause. 

Feeling threatened disrupts people’s social skills leaving them focused on their own needs at the expense of anyone else’s. “ When you talk to a lonely person you feel like they are feasting on you,” Cacioppo says. “ Not in a good way.” Cacioppo found that social stress does not just affect your brain but it filters down to your DNA. 

In a small study, by molecular biologist Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed gene expression in people who were socially isolated versus those who were not. His results found a large proportion of the lonely people’s up-regulated genes were involved in inflammation, whereas many of their down regulated genes had roles in antiviral responses and antibody production.

In sociable people, the reverse was true—biological activity in their immune cells was skewed towards fighting viruses and tumor cells and away from producing inflammation. Crucially, the difference related most strongly not to the actual size of the volunteers’ social networks but to how isolated they felt themselves be.

6. Adults & Elders are Affected Too

James House, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, reported that after adjusting for age and other risk factors, adults with fewer social relationships makes you twice as likely to die in the next decade.[The association of social relationships and activities with mortality: prospective evidence from the Tecumseh Community Health Study.  - PubMed - NCBI]

As we get older, the brain’s prefrontal cortex starts to decline more rapidly than other parts of the brain. This area is crucial for self-regulation, rational thinking, and social relationships. The decline is accelerated in people who are lonely or chronically stressed and that ultimately leads to dementia. [Stress, PTSD, and dementia.  - PubMed - NCBI]
[Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL) | Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry]                                                    

These findings can be tough for the elderly who tend to be isolated and sidelined, becoming less and less engaged in the community as they age.

A mentorship-like program, for senior citizens and kids, significantly improved the academic achievement of the children, but also the health of the volunteers. In 2009, a pilot trial was published suggesting measures that normally decline with age were increasing over a school year for the volunteers. The volunteers’ activity levels increased and their legs got stronger. They also performed better on cognitive tests and had increased activity in the prefrontal cortex.

The hippocampus usually shrinks with age and becomes impaired in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Yet in the volunteers, it got bigger. Age-related damage in their brains was being reversed.  

[A Social Model for Health Promotion for an Aging Population: Initial Evidence on the Experience Corps Model— Johns Hopkins University]

[Evidence for neurocognitive plasticity in at-risk older adults: The experience corps program — Johns Hopkins University]

In Conclusion: Get Involved

We need to be careful and diligent about who we dwell with because our life depends on it.  Not only do we have the ability to better each other but the ability to lengthen each others' lives by reducing the risk of death from all causes… That is phenomenal. 

Charles Raton, a psychiatry professor and mind-body medicine researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, states, “People who have warm relationships, rich social lives, and who feel like they are embedded in a group, “don’t get as sick, and they live longer.”

Understanding the importance of community in a world where bullying, body image, racism, worldly expectations, and many other problems occur is heart breaking. We very well could be contributing to their life span positively or negatively. We get to choose if we are going to love and serve or turn a blind eye and let them suffer. By developing deeper relationships with those around us, we may learn something and strengthen our immune systems while doing so. Let us take into consideration the influence we can have when interacting with one another. May we embrace each other with grace, humility, and love. We need each other. 

Not only do we need to be plugged in but we need to serve and help others get plugged in as well. Let us serve you and become a part of your community. 

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