Social Connection Makes You Healthier

I have good news everybody!¬† I am embarking on my Integrative and Holistic Medicine board certification training ūüôā¬† The conference and board exam are at the end of October, so let the cramfest begin, LOL!

The first topic I have been studying is fascinating: the study of the impact of social connection on health and wellness.¬† It makes intuitive¬†sense that those with healthy relationships will be healthier, but it’s interesting that the science bears it out too.

There are three main types of social connection that have been studied in the literature:  relationships with parents, relationships with spouse or significant other, and relationships with community.  They are ALL critically important for overall wellness.

1.  Relationships with parents

Your relationship with your parents is the earliest social connection that you form.¬† Unfortunately this relationship isn’t really under your control (at least at the beginning).¬† Is it important for health to have a close, warm, supportive relationship with your parents?

Yep.

In a study of Harvard students, they found that students who reported their relationships with their parents were “very close” or “warm and friendly” had a 50% chance of a serious illness over the following 35 years.¬† Those who reported their relationships were “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had a 100% chance of serious illness over the 35 years of follow up!¬† That is NOT a subtle difference!

The authors of this study thought several factors accounted for the difference in the two groups.¬† Healthy and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors begin developing in childhood.¬† Nutrition and stress in early childhood play a big role in healthy development of the child’s mind, body and spirit.¬† Choice of life partner in adulthood are strongly influenced by parental role models (i.e. you generally marry a person who is similar to one of your parents).¬† Coping strategies are learned from parental role models, including those that influence anxiety, anger and self-esteem.

2.  Relationship with spouse

In a large study published in JAMA in 1992, 1400 men and women with coronary artery disease (proven by a cardiac cath) were asked about their relationship with their spouse or a close confidante.  After 5 years, 15% of those who were married or had someone in whom they could confide had died, but 50% of those who were unmarried and had no close confidante had died.

This and other studies show that companionship and close relationships are good for your health.

3.  Relationships with community

A fascinating study was published in the 1990s about the town of Roseto, PA.¬† This is a small town that was settled by a group of immigrants from Italy.¬† In the 1930s to 1950s the people of Roseto largely lived in multigenerational homes, attended church regularly, and had close family ties.¬† Rates of myocardial infarction (heart attack) were unusually low in Roseto in spite of the fact that obesity, smoking, diabetes and other rates of typical heart risk factors were no different in Roseto than in surrounding communities.¬† In the 1960s Roseto started to become “Americanized” and began to lose this social cohesiveness, at which time the rates of MI started to go up until they were essentially the same as surrounding towns.

Social connection can even protect you from the common cold!  276 healthy people were asked about positive relationships and then given nose drops containing common cold viruses.  People who had less than 3 positive relationships got cold symptoms 4 times as often as those who had higher scores.

Social connection can be used as an intervention to promote health as well.  Patients with illnesses as diverse as metastatic breast cancer, heart disease and malignant melanoma have benefited from social support as a health intervention.

So what does all this mean?  We are social creatures and meant to create social connection with others.  The lack of close relationships with others creates stress and predisposes to illness.

Cultivating close, warm, supportive relationships with other people (both family and friends) is as important to your health as diet and exercise.

If you’re a parent, being conscious of the quality of the relationship with your child is important for their health in the future.¬† (Remember, it’s not what YOU think of the relationship but what THEY think of the relationship that counts!¬† Are you available, supportive, loving?)

If your relationship with your parents falls in the “tolerant” or “strained and distant” categories, it is important to see a counselor.¬† It can be toxic in the worst sense of the word to carry around unresolved anger and resentment against your parents.¬† There are therapy techniques that help work through early childhood experiences, “reparent” yourself and forgive your parents so you can move forward without all that baggage.

QUESTION:  If you were suddenly sick or injured, who would you call?  How many people would come rushing to the hospital to help you?  Who do you confide in?

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