Family and Friends Prolong Life

We humans are social creatures by nature. It’s in our genes that we’re more likely to not just survive, but also to thrive in health and wellness when we work together.

The loneliness epidemic

When nearly half of US adults are “lonely,” there’s clearly something wrong:

  • The percentage of US adults who self-describe as lonely has doubled since the 1980s—from 20 percent to 40 percent
  • Around one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone
  • Around half of those over 85 live alone

This is not a moment to just express sympathy and concern.

It’s a health crisis in the making.

“Going it alone” is hazardous to your health

Recent research gives us abundant evidence that social separation is bad for us. Individuals with fewer social connections have:

  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Altered immune systems
  • More inflammation
  • Higher levels of stress hormones
  • 29 percent higher risk of heart disease
  • 32 percent higher risk of stroke

Other studies have found that, socially isolated individuals have a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years—with the effect most pronounced among those of middle age. Additionally, loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults.

Social isolation hurts even kids. Twenty years and more after childhood, children who were socially isolated have significantly poorer health.

Bottom line?

Lack of social connection is as potent a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.

The role of family in health

Broadly speaking, it seems there are two belief systems when it comes to family:

“I sustain myself with the love of family.” — Maya Angelou

versus

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family—in another city.” — George Burns

I understand both perspectives. Family can be our best friends or worst enemies.

Some recent research has looked specifically at adult siblings and their role in family members’ health.

Siblings, when you’re all grown up

Most of the research on sibling relationships looks at early childhood. With good reason—a lot goes on in those years.  Young brothers and sisters learn from each other and their parents about how to interact with peers, co-workers, and friends as their lives move on.

Less studied are our relationships with our siblings when we’re all adults. That’s a surprise, as they’re the longest-running family ties we have—usually from cradle to grave.

Within this universe, happily, recent data tells us, that most adult sibling relationships are close and caring.  Two-thirds of respondents in one study, for example, said a brother or sister was one of their best friends.

That’s very good medicine.  Just having a best friend is a great gift.  When the friend is family, the gift’s value increases.

A Swedish study, for example, concluded that satisfying contact with siblings among the 80-plus population is closely linked with good health and positive mood—more closely linked than close non-family friendships or relationships with adult children.

Up close and personal

Another fascinating study, small, but wonderfully revealing, looked at two groups of couples to see whether their levels of dyadic coping—their ability to communicate and collaborate with each other—would affect their immune response to stress. Maybe the results would help explain the links between social isolation and poor health.

In the group with high dyadic coping, there was no immune response to a stressful situation designed into the study—discussion of an area of disagreement.  The couples worked out their solutions with no signs of stress-induced inflammation.

But in the group with low dyadic coping, there was a detectable immune response to the stressful situation. In both members of the couples, tests found interleukin (IL)-6—a compound that always appears when the body responds to inflammation.

So a social interaction caused inflammation, which is at the root of nearly all disease.  In this case, it wasn’t a lack of social contact, as with loneliness, but the lack of social connection—even within a social connection.

My takeaway?

This study clearly supports the conclusion that community, collaboration, communication, togetherness, partnering—call it what you will—are an essential component of both mental health and physical health.

Stay in touch

Literally, in touch. Close enough to engage face to face with your fellow, social, human brothers, sisters, friends, aunts, uncles, and any others. Don’t be shy, don’t be stressed—you need each other.

I know it’s hard to step outside your comfort zone. But acting outside your comfort zone can have immediate rewards.  I remember a study that found people with positive attitudes can, yes, have a moment of stress—but the positive attitude prevailed, and immediately calmed the stress response.

So think how gratified you are when someone gives you their attention and engagement.  It’s the same when you give it to them. You’re giving them a gift.  You can see it in their smiles. And you’ll feel it in your own smiles.

Talk about win-win … take good care.


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