Humans are naturally social. Yet, the modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships. Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. Many also delay getting married and having children. Likewise, more and more people of all ages in developed countries are living alone, and loneliness is becoming increasingly common. In the UK, according to a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 10% of people often feel lonely, a third have a close friend or relative who they think is very lonely, and half think that people are getting lonelier in general. Similarly, over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Australians who say they have no close confidants. There is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated.
They point to a 1988 review of five prospective studies that showed that people with fewer social relationships die earlier on average than those with more social relationships.
Why Was This Study Done?
Some experts think that social isolation is bad for human health. They point to a 1988 review of five prospective studies that showed that people with fewer social relationships die earlier on average than those with more social relationships. But, even though many prospective studies of mortality (death) have included measures of social relationships since that first review, the idea that a lack of social relationships is a risk factor for death is still not widely recognized by health organizations and the public. In this study, therefore, the researchers undertake a systematic review and meta-analysis of the relevant literature to determine the extent to which social relationships influence mortality risk and which aspects of social relationships are most predictive of mortality.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 148 prospective studies that provided data on individuals’ mortality as a function of social relationships and extracted an “effect size” from each study. An effect size quantifies the size of a difference between two groups—here, the difference in the likelihood of death between groups that differ in terms of their social relationships. The researchers then used a statistical method called “random effects modeling” to calculate the average effect size of the studies expressed as an odds ratio (OR)—the ratio of the chances of an event happening in one group to the chances of the same event happening in the second group.
They report that the average OR was 1.5. That is, people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships.
Put another way, an OR of 1.5 means that by the time half of a hypothetical sample of 100 people has died, there will be five more people alive with stronger social relationships than people with weaker social relationships. Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.
Furthermore, the overall effect of social relationships on mortality reported in this meta-analysis might be an underestimate, because many of the studies used simple single-item measures of social isolation rather than a complex measurement. Although further research is needed to determine exactly how social relationships can be used to reduce mortality risk, physicians, health professionals, educators, and the media should now acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults and should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality, the researchers conclude.
Regardless of the reason, one thing is clear: if you want to live a long and healthy life, you need social support.
But how do you find that support in an increasingly fast-paced, fragmented, modern world? Here are a few ideas:
Cultivate friendship. Only 25 percent of Australian say they are truly satisfied with their friendships.
Put yourself out there. Join a book club or some other activity group; play on a soccer, softball, or learn ballroom dancing; go to parties; and get out and about!
Volunteer. People who give social support have lower blood pressure, and they’re more likely to report having greater social support (what goes around comes around!). Volunteering is also a great way to meet like-minded people that you’re likely to connect with.
Putting yourself out there and forming new friendships and connections is not always easy, but according to the research, making a new friend may have a bigger impact on your health than starting a new exercise routine or losing weight. (Don’t take that as a recommendation not to be physically active or maintain a healthy weight, but as an indicator of just how important social connection really is!)