Man cannot live by bread alone
Clifford and Eva Vevea were ‘hopelessly in love’ for 65 years of marriage and died within hours of each other. Marcus Ringrose died the day after his wife’s funeral. Robert and Nora Viands died 16 hours apart after 71 years of happy marriage. These stories are exceptional because they are dramatic. But beneath the drama lies some truth that applies to all of us. Evidence suggests that our friends, family, and social groups can improve our health. A review of 148 studies gathered the following information about almost a million people:
- The number of close family members and friends they had.
- What support family and friends and other social groups provided.
- Whether they felt supported by friends, family, and social groups.
The people were followed for an average of 7.5 years and the results were clear: people with healthy social networks live an average of five years longer. That is the same effect as quitting smoking.
Two theories explain how social networks improve health. One is that healthy social networks reduce stress. Your social networks can also provide actual help in the form of physical support (taking a disabled friend for a walk or to the gym), emotional care (listening, providing encouragement), or medical advice (informing a friend about a new treatment they may not have heard of).
There are two potential problems with the study that we need to be aware of. People who are healthier at the beginning of a study (this is called ‘initial health status’) are more likely to have good social networks and live longer. We don’t need complex science to prove that people who are healthier to start with generally end up living longer. Fortunately the researchers thought of this and with the help of statistical analyses, they controlled for initial health status and confirmed that good social networks improve health whether or not the people studied were healthier to begin with.
The other thing to keep in mind is that not all types of social networks improve health. If you choose gangs as your social group you probably won’t live longer. So it is not just any family, friends, and social group that improves health, but the right ones.
You may not have known about the science I just described, but you did know about the health benefits of good social networks. If you are a parent you rightly worry if your kids mix with people who smoke, drink, or take drugs because it makes it more likely that your kids will drink, smoke, or take drugs. Likewise, having close ties with healthy people will make you healthier. For instance studies show that if you are a smoker and your friends quit smoking you are more likely to quit smoking. You can probably also remember a time when the people around you helped you make a healthy choice. I can certainly remember such a time. Last September my mother passed away in Montreal, and within 24 hours my three best friends made their way from three different countries to support me. Now evidence suggests that when a family member dies we are more likely to drink, smoke, and eat junk food. I don’t remember being tempted to do any of those things and this could be because of the support I received. For example one friend dragged me on a 2.5 hour run that helped me release stress and made me feel so tired that I had a great sleep, when normally the grief might have kept me awake.
It is especially important to maintain healthy social networks these days because we live further and further from family, delay marriage, and studies report we’re getting lonelier. So reach out to a friend, get in touch with a family member or join a club. You and your world will become healthier.