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Study: Relationships Are as Important as Diet & Exercise

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Senior Couple LaughingThis article originally appeared on Live in the Now.

A new study exploring the fascinating connections between relationships and health finds that having a supportive network of family and friends is profoundly important. According to the authors, loneliness can “vastly elevate” the risk of health maladies. In fact, the quantity and quality of social ties can influence wellness just as much as diet and exercise.

Scientists at the University of North Carolina discovered correlations between relationships and specific health measures at different stages of life. Previous research has shown aging adults live longer if they have social ties, but the new study reveals further insights. It suggests a social network affects abdominal fat, high blood pressure and inflammation, all of which can lead to major illnesses like cancer and heart disease.

Study Looked at How Social Ties Affect Physiology

In the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, senior author Kathleen Mullan Harris and her team used four surveys that followed more than 14,000 participants. They examined the quantity and quality of relationships from adolescence to old age. The quantity was evaluated through tabulating factors such as marital status, number of friends, involvement in the community and religious affiliation. Quality was assessed through asking questions such as whether family and friends were loving and supportive or critical and argumentative.

Next, the researchers explored how a social network affected four key markers of mortality risk: body mass index, waist circumference, blood pressure and levels of a protein that is an indicator of systemic inflammation.

Quantity Matters in Early and Late Adulthood

The team discovered the more social ties people have when they are young, the better their health is in both youth and old age. “Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active,” said senior author Kathleen Mullan Harris.

They also found the size of a person’s social network influenced several health parameters in early and late adulthood. During adolescence, having a social network protected against abdominal obesity while social isolation raised the risk of inflammation to the same extent as physical inactivity. In old age, social isolation increased the risk of high blood pressure even more than diabetes.

Quality Matters in Midlife

During middle adulthood, from the mid-30s to 50s, the quality of relationships rather than their quantity was found to be significant. “What mattered more is what those ties mean in your life,” Harris said. “Do they provide support or strain? That’s what tends to matter for health.”

“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,” said researcher Yang Claire Yang. “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.”

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