There is another, though—relationships.
At any stage in life, our degree of social fulfillment actually has a tangible effect on our physical health, according to researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Renmin University in China. In a study published Monday (Jan. 4) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers collected data from over 14,000 people across four longitudinal surveys. Participants’ responses about the depth of their personal relationships, as well as physical measurements such as their blood pressure and body mass index, were examined to see if there was an association between these health markers and the quality and quantity of their social ties.
“Why do social relationships affect health? The mechanism we think it operates through is stress,” Kathleen Harris, one of the University of North Carolina professors who led the study, tells Quartz. “Social relationships reduce the daily stresses of life.”
While scientific links between social connections and mortality have long been established, the study is one of the first to reveal specific physical risks. For instance, researchers found that socially isolated teenagers are just as likely to develop inflammation as teenagers who don’t exercise. For older people, lack of social support raises the risk of hypertension more than having diabetes does. Adults in general face higher odds of abdominal obesity, inflammation, and general obesity when they aren’t socially satisfied.
The researchers note, however, that “social satisfaction” doesn’t mean the same for every age group. For the young and old, having a large social network boosts health the most, whereas maintaining a smaller set of high-quality relationships is more important in mid-adulthood.
While the study shows how loneliness can cause damage to health, the good news is that it also reveals how we can combat it, early on.
“We’re not looking at disease, we’re looking at markers of future disease,” Harris tells Quartz. “If you have hypertension, it means you might have cardiovascular disease 20 years from now. These health risks eat away at your body over time—so we can identify some of them early in adolescents.” Harris suggests schools could do more to organize social activities for students, and parents should make sure their kids are involved in hobbies with others.
Adults themselves, Harris says, should focus on maintaining close, supportive social links at work, at home, and within their communities and institutions. They should also cut down on relationships that cause strain. After all, it’s not all types of social connections that are beneficial to health.