The Heart Health Benefits of Being Social
Are friendships and social networking — real life or online — as important to your health as diet and exercise? You might not think so, but science is proving otherwise. Studies published many decades ago found loneliness in old age can have significant negative effects on health and longevity.
Recent research has connected the benefits of fulfilling social relationships and social networks directly to specific health issues, including inflammation, diabetes and cardiovascular disease—and not just in later life, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Real-Life Social Relationships
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill researchers found the quantity and quality of social relationships throughout our lives affects our risk for developing cardiovascular disease during different stages of our lives.
The study found socially active aging adults living longer and that social isolation in later life can be harmful, raising the risk for developing and controlling hypertension. They also found was that social relationships in our early years — particular adolescence — extremely important, setting the stage for good health and lowering the risk of hypertension.
During middle age, however, it’s not so much the number of social relationships we have but how deep and supportive (or strained) they are that affects health. There’s a link between social isolation in our younger years and increased risk of inflammation and obesity, raising the risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease as we age.
The study’s lead researcher believes broad social skills are as important to building the foundation for good health as physical activity, good nutrition and healthy eating habits. And while quantity of social connections is important when we’re both young and old, the quality of our relationships is what counts during our middle years.
Other research has found that social isolation and loneliness can directly increase a person’s risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by as much as almost a third (29 percent and 32 percent respectively) — similar to the impact of job stress and anxiety — two risk factors for coronary heart disease.
Social Networking for Heart Health
Having meaningful relationships and support in person has tremendous value to our health, but so do some virtual relationships and support systems. Following health influencers and experts on social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, for example, can actually help you reach your health goals. You can read informative blogs, learn great tips and gather healthful recipes. And sharing the information among online friends helps you foster relationships that provide support and help keep you motivated — whether it’s completing a half marathon or maintaining a heart healthy diet.
But there’s the phenomenon of ‘social contagion’—the indirect effect (positive or negative) that social networks can have on our health. Why? Because we’re so interconnected your friends’ friends on Facebook can also influence your health. If your friends friends are focused on living a healthy lifestyle, there’s a good chance everyone connected with them are too, which can ultimately benefit you. Unfortunately, the opposite can be true. Surrounding yourself online or in person with potentially destructive people may impact your health negatively.
The Bottom Line
Socializing can help lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, and social support can help you recover from heart health issues. Share the status of your family relationships, social life, hobbies, community involvement and online presence with your primary care physician, cardiologist and other specialists so they can evaluate the depth of your relationships and how it may affect your health.