The Healing Power of Social Networks

The Healing Power of Social NetworksWhat better way is there to chase away the winter blues than getting together with your friends for a fun evening? Have you ever called a pal just to chat on a day when your spirits were down? The instant gratification we feel when socializing is the result of “feel good” hormones released during social interaction. But the benefits of having an active social life go far beyond this quick boost in happiness. In fact, studies show how strong social relationships help us live longer and healthier lives.

Conversely, loneliness has been found to weaken the immune system, to lead to depression and increase our perception of fatigue and pain. This generates inflammation, a condition linked to several serious illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Studies suggest solitary people tend to react with higher levels of stress to situations in their daily life, which may end up causing chronic stress and disrupting their immune system.

INNATE STRESS REACTION
UCLA researcher, Steven Cole, traces this response back to our evolution. When our ancestors grouped together, their bodies reinforced the immune system as a proactive reaction to the increased risk of infection by bacteria and viruses; but when they were alone and more vulnerable to predators, the body’s response prioritized alertness, increasing heart rate and blood flow in preparation for an attack.

Whatever the cause may be, it is not just a single study that reveals this surprising link. While it is a relatively new research topic, a growing body of evidence leads to the same conclusion: loneliness harms your health. On the flip side, the benefits of a fulfilling social life appear to be significant regardless of age or gender, as reported by the Stanford School of Medicine.

In one of the larger reviews, researchers from Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina analyzed data from 148 studies (over 300,000 participants) to compare social interaction and health outcomes. People with poor social connections had a 50% higher risk of death on average—loneliness had practically the same negative impact as smoking, researchers concluded, and comparable to other well-known risk factors.

A study conducted in Australia focused on participants 70 years of age and older; the findings, along with other research, revealed a 22% lower likelihood of dying for participants with strong social relationships.

Looking to rule out differences derived from genetics and childhood, another study evaluated only pairs of twins, and determined the sibling with stronger community ties had overall better health.

Read Related: Are Deep Meaningful Friendships a Thing of the Past?

LONELINESS AND CANCER
The findings of one of the most recent studies are nothing short of astounding. Researchers from Kaiser Permanente followed 2,264 women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, to evaluate the impact their social networks had on survival. The participants responded to a questionnaire that included information about a spouse or significant other, religious or social ties in the community, whether they volunteered or not, amount of time spent socializing with friends, the number of first-degree female relatives, how much social support they had, and whether they had or were a caregiver. Based on these answers, the women were classified into three groups:

  • Socially Isolated
  • Moderately Socially Integrated
  • Very Socially Integrated

The participants then completed a second survey to determine the quality of their relationships, and were divided into two groups based on their subjective perception:

  • High Level of Social Support
  • Low Level of Social Support

Researchers found that those women who were socially isolated and had low levels of social support were up to 61% more likely to die from breast cancer or other causes than those who were very socially integrated and had high levels of social support.

Interestingly, the quality of social connections also had a major influence; women, who despite having a small network, perceived a high level of support from their relationships, had just as good an outcome as women with larger networks.

A HEALTHY DOSE OF SOCIALIZING
If a supportive social network boosts the immune system and helps us cope with stress, people with cancer and other serious diseases need to find those with whom they connect and feel free to confide. When this is impossible within our closest circle, support groups both in person and online may be a good option. While research provides mixed opinions as to the health benefits of relating to perfect strangers based on a common illness, I have seen how patients create strong bonds with each other, even if they haven’t met in person, using social media.

I consider myself lucky to have a small but strong network of friends and family, who had the chance to show me their support recently when I was diagnosed with a serious illness. But what about your health? With sound evidence to back it up, relationships should be a top priority, along with a balanced diet and some exercise. Stop blaming our hectic lifestyle and make time for friends and family. Go out and have fun. You are just following doctor’s orders!