I write a lot about cholesterol, blood pressure, a heart healthy diet, and the benefits of physical activity—and rightly so. All of that stuff is vital to a long, healthy life. But it turns out that the way we spend our time—and who we spend it with—might be just as important as how we treat our bodies. The science is clear. Social connection is a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle, and may be one of the major factors that determine how long, and how well you live.
Social Connection, Cardiovascular Disease, and Mortality
The quality of your social connections is directly related to your risk of cardiovascular disease. Even “perceived loneliness” has been associated with a 29% increased the risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. And the mortality rates are worse for people who already have heart disease. Poor social integration (e.g. a low number of close relationships) predicts a 61% increased risk of death. Some studies show even higher risks to social isolation.
Researchers have also looked at the relationship between social isolation and overall mortality. And while these outcomes are difficult to measure, the consensus is that loneliness predicts an increased risk of dying from all causes. A meta study of 148 studies (with over 300,000 participants) indicated a “50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships, regardless of age, sex, initial health status, and even cause of death.”
This means that loneliness is as dangerous to your health as smoking and an even bigger risk factor than obesity and sedentary lifestyle.
Loneliness can be as dangerous to your health as smoking
Why is Social Connection So Important?
People have a lot of explanations for why loneliness increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, and mortality. One popular explanation is that people who are socially isolated are more likely to engage in negative health behaviors such as smoking, weight gain, and excessive alcohol use. Another possible explanation is that the negative psychological states associated with loneliness cause physiological changes that increase the risk for heart attack, stroke, and death. This includes an increase in activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA)—two systems involved in your stress response.
The downstream effects of social isolation include inflammation, high blood pressure, increased blood clotting, and decreased immune function, which all lead to plaque buildup in the arteries—aka heart attack, stroke, and death. And it’s not just speculation. In a very real sense, loneliness and social isolation are bad for your health.
The Prescription: Friendship
We don’t know exactly how socializing decreases your risk for heart disease, stroke and death. However, we do know the potential side effects. Nothing.
There’s no downside to developing a richer social life. There aren’t any “side effects” to spending quality time with the people you care about and cultivating new relationships. When I “prescribe” social activities, I don’t have to caution patients about the potential negative side effects. In fact, questionnaires at my practice often included questions about their social circle, social behaviors, and social network. It’s that important to your health.
Your overall “survival rate” increases by 50% if you have strong social relationships
One study found that more than 80% of centenarians “communicate with a friend or family member daily.” Another common thread for people in the 100+ club is regular social engagement. Take part in your community and you might be an old timer dispensing advice 80 years from now.
Participate in Your Community
Research has consistently found that attending church regularly comes with a decreased risk of organ dysfunction and death. Some studies show that this is at least partially due to better social connectedness and better health behaviors. If you’re not religious, it’s possible that these benefits could come from other kinds of social groups and gatherings.
Crossfit, for example has served as a gathering place for thousands of people. (Just make sure the instructor is good to prevent the risk of injury).
And if grunting and throwing tractors around isn’t your thing, there’s no shortage of options. Meetups is another great example of a way to get together and make social connections with people with common goals and interests. Find a club, join a team, attend a silly lecture series—and go to the coffee hang afterwards. However you do it, engage with the people around, and nourish your existing relationships with friends and family. There’s just something about getting together with people who share your values and interests.
Give social connection a try. It may even help you live longer.
Geek Out: More Social Connection Resources
Not enough info for you? No problem. Nerd out on the health impacts of social connection with research from the most trusted sources on the interwebs. If you have any questions or you think we missed something important, leave a comment or book a consultation with one of these trained professionals and we’ll get you on the way to a healthier manhood.
- Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke
- Social Integration and Mortality in Patients with Coronary Heart Disease: Findings from the Heart and Soul Study
- Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy
- Church attendance, allostatic load and mortality in middle aged adults
- Frequent Attendance at Religious Services and Mortality over 28 Years
- Social Relationships and Mortality Risk
This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.