Having a strong network of family and friends around us is generally perceived as a good thing, meaning we have people to talk to if we have a problem or help us when we are in need. However, what if there’s more to it, and having a social network (the real, not the Facebook kind) can actually improve our health, and make us live longer?
To start – how have scientists defined social support? Rather than just being about the number of people in our social network, “social support refers to the clarity or
certainty with which an individual experiences being loved, valued, and able to
count on others should the need arise” (Turner & Lewis Brown, 2010). Therefore the quality of our social relationships is important, not just quantity.
The health benefits of having strong social bonds have been studied for decades. One of the first studies to suggest a link between social support and health was conducted in America in the 1970s (Berkman & Syme, 1979). They studied a random sample of almost 7000 adults, and followed them up for nine years. The results showed that people with lower social ties were more likely to die in this follow up period than those with higher levels of social support. Importantly, this finding was independent of general health, socio-economic status, and lifestyle factors such as physical activity and smoking.
As well as improving our physical health, social support also has benefits for our mental health. Research has found that perceived social support is correlated with depression, with those perceiving higher levels of social support experiencing fewer depressive symptoms (Stice et al, 2004) One other aspect of mental health which is thought to be particularly improved through social support is stress. Social support acts as a ‘buffer’ to stress, influencing whether we see stressful events as a threat, and how well we are able to cope with them (Lakey & Orehek, 2011).
We’ve seen that increased social support can lead to an improvement in our physical and mental health, but how does this effect occur? Uchino (2006) hypothesises that social support could influence health via two different pathways. The first states that social support acts as a positive influence and promotes health behaviours, such as taking medication or going to the doctor when ill, having a balanced diet, or not smoking. The second pathway states that social support directly influences our mood and emotions, which in turn helps to keep us healthy.
As described above, social support can help to act as a buffer and make us more resilient to stress. A reduction in stress levels can help cardiovascular health: several studies have shown that higher social support is correlated with lower blood pressure (e.g. Gump et al, 2001). Social support could also improve our health through our immune system: one study found that cancer patients with higher levels of social support had higher levels of tumour-fighting cells than those with less social support (Levy et al, 1990).
Of course, having a strong social network isn’t going to guarantee perfect health and a long life. But there’s a strong case to suggest that investing more time in our real world friendships could improve our health, as well as the health of those around us.
Berkman, L.F. and Syme, S.L., 1979. Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents. American journal of Epidemiology, 109(2), pp.186-204.
Gump, B.B., Polk, D.E., Kamarck, T.W. and Shiffman, S.M., 2001. Partner interactions are associated with reduced blood pressure in the natural environment: Ambulatory monitoring evidence from a healthy, multiethnic adult sample. Psychosomatic medicine, 63(3), pp.423-433.
Lakey, B. and Orehek, E., 2011. Relational regulation theory: A new approach to explain the link between perceived social support and mental health. Psychological review, 118(3), p.482.
Levy, S. M., Herberman, R. B., Whiteside, T., Sanzo, K., Lee, J., and Kirkwood, J. (1990). Perceived social support and tumor estrogen/progesterone receptor status as predictors of natural killer cell activity in breast cancer patients. Psychosom. Med. 52: 73–85
Stice, E., Ragan, J. and Randall, P., 2004. Prospective relations between social support and depression: Differential direction of effects for parent and peer support?. Journal of abnormal psychology, 113(1), p.155.
Turner, R.J. and Brown, R.L., 2010. Social support and mental health. A handbook for the study of mental health: Social contexts, theories, and systems, 2, pp.200-212.
Uchino, B.N., 2006. Social support and health: a review of physiological processes potentially underlying links to disease outcomes. Journal of behavioral medicine, 29(4), pp.377-387.