How Connection Impacts Your Health
Humans are intrinsically social beings. Having meaningful connections with others and belonging to a community are vitally important for many reasons.
As relates to health, your social relationships may affect your health in various ways – behavioral, psychological and physiological. For example, loneliness and social isolation often go hand in hand with physical inactivity and smoking; loneliness is linked to lower self-esteem and limited coping skills, while social isolation predicts decline in self-efficacy. Feeling lonely or being socially isolated is associated with defective immune functioning and higher blood pressure.
Loneliness and Your Heart
An important review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies found that “people who have few social contacts (i.e. who are socially isolated) or feel unhappy about their social relationships (i.e. who are lonely) are at increased risk of premature mortality.” In fact, the influence of social relationships on mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors, including physical activity and obesity. Deficiencies in social relationships are also associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke.
Another study, presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s EuroHeartCare 2018 congress, found that feeling lonely (loneliness) was a stronger predictor of poor outcomes than living alone, in both men and women. According to the study’s author:
“Loneliness was associated with a doubled mortality risk in women and nearly doubled risk in men. Both men and women who felt lonely were three times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression, and had a significantly lower quality of life than those who did not feel lonely.”
The study stresses that it is the feeling of loneliness that really matters here, pointing out that people may live alone but not feel lonely while others cohabit but do feel lonely.
What Can We Learn from the Blue Zones?
That people with well-developed social networks tend to live longer is clearly seen in the so-called Blue Zones of the world, the regions with the healthiest, longest-lived people on earth. These include Barbagia (Sardinia), Ikaria (Greece), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda (California, US), and Okinawa (Japan).
According to the Blue Zone researchers, “the world’s longest-lived people chose – or were born into – social circles that supported healthy behaviors.” For example, Okinawans create ‘moais’, groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. The researchers found that having a strong social network and sense of community including family and friends is linked to better longevity and overall health. This is as much because those with close ties are more likely to have better support systems as because they are likely to have a stronger sense of meaning in life.
OUR TIPS to Improve Your Heart Health Today
Whilst you may not give much attention to your relationships, you can now understand why they matter so much! And it is important to stress that strong and supportive relationships are not created overnight. Rather, they take deliberate effort to develop and to nurture…and often over long time periods.
So, don’t wait until you have “more time” or until you face a crisis – start investing in your relationships today! Do whatever you can to deepen your connections with the people who matter most to you. Spend more time with your family and close friends (even if this means spending less time with your work!). Make a deliberate effort to be open with those you love, sharing what you are feeling and thinking. When you “mess” up with any of your relationships, apologise where necessary and learn to forgive yourself.
We’d also encourage you to look into your relationships every so often, and, with honesty, decide whether they nurture you or whether they leave you feeling depleted. If the latter, be kind to yourself … and release these individuals from your life. In this way, you will be making space for new relationships to form … ones that will support, uplift and inspire you. This act of self-kindness will have lifelong repercussions on your health and wellbeing!