Are Social Networks As Important As Diet, Exercise?

First Posted: Jan 05, 2016 05:08 PM EST

What we eat and how much we exercise hold a big impact on our health; it's not all just about the cards our genes hand to us. Yet did you know that other people can dramatically impact our health, as well?

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, for the first time, social relationships can interfere with concrete measures relating to physical well-being--increasing our risk for abdominal obesity, inflammation and high blood pressure, as well as a tiring list of long-term health issues.

"Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active," said Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center (CPC), in a news release

Study results showed that the size of an individual's social network greatly influenced their health risk--particularly in early and late adulthood. For instance, social isolation during adolescence increased the risk of inflammation, whereas individuals who were easily integrated into society at a young age showed lower risk for the aforementioned health issues. Lastly, after analyzing the study results, researchers found that it was not so much the number of social connections, but more so, the impact these connections made on social support or strain.

To do this, researchers examined data from four nationally representative surveys of the U.S. population that covered the lifespan from adolescence to old age. They specifically focused on social support, social integration and social strain. Then, they examined four mark that have previously been shown to increase the risk mortality risk, including the following: lood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index and circulating levels of C-reactive protein, which is a measure of systemic inflammation.

"We studied the interplay between social relationships, behavioral factors and physiological dysregulation that, over time, lead to chronic diseases of aging-cancer being a prominent example," Yang Claire Yang, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, CPC fellow and a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. "Our analysis makes it clear that doctors, clinicians, and other health workers should redouble their efforts to help the public understand how important strong social bonds are throughout the course of all of our lives."

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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