How social health affects physical health may not be recognized by everyone, but it is a scientifically proven fact.
While the effect of diet and exercise on health is accepted by almost everyone, the impact of social relationships and social support is much less so.
As a whole, social health can directly impact physical health. Scientific studies show that positive social health promotes longevity and boosts immunity. Social exclusion has a similar effect to physical pain and has a negative impact on numerous mechanisms underlying chronic conditions.
This is especially true when confronted with serious illnesses such as cancer and heart attacks. People often react with skepticism or even jeers when you bring up the idea that contact with other people can help. And yet that is the case! Read on to understand why and how social health affects physical health.
Table of Contents
- 1 How social health affects physical health: Introduction
- 2 Confidants for social support
- 3 Loneliness is a public health concern
- 4 Social exclusion is similar to physical pain
- 5 Consequences of social exclusion
- 6 Social support from a community is largely lost
- 7 How social health affects physical health: Conclusion
A study reviewing 148 studies on the impact of social relationships on our health showed that those who had good social relationships, 50% had an increased lifespan of 7.5 years more than those who had reported feeling isolated.
The effect was even more significant when the researchers looked at the combined impact of several social aspects, such as feeling lonely, excluded, etc.
In summary, social isolation was a risk factor at least as great as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and a greater risk than obesity or too little exercise.
In short, science tells us that a lack of social relationships can be deadly!
One of the most critical aspects of social support is having one or more confidants. People you can open your heart to and count on when you need help.
Unfortunately, more and more people state that they have no such friends.
All studies of social relationships in our modern Western society point to a decline in the quantity and quality of social relationships, which should be of grave concern to us.
A U.S. study shows that over two decades, the number of people we can rely on to discuss important matters has dropped by almost a third (from 2.94 to 2.08 people).
The number of people who reported having no one to confide in has increased from 10 to 25%.
Loneliness is a public health concern
Loneliness has therefore become a significant public health problem. Research on long-term effects suggests that a lack of good social relationships and low self-esteem are the cause of numerous health problems thus explaining how social health affects physical health,
Immunity against colds
For example, people who have many and diverse social contacts have greater resistance to colds.
Important during adolescence and the elderly
Good social relationships are essential at all stages of life, but are even more important during adolescence and in the elderly. For older people, having confidants appears to be especially important.
This should not be surprising: when you are old, it is important to be able to fall back on people who can support you and offer help.
Yet neediness is not just about practical things like help with housework, body care or transportation.
There are objective and subjective ways to ascertain the degree of social isolation. For example, an accurate measure is counting how often someone has contact with someone else.
Yet this does not say everything. You can have a lot of people around you, thus not physically be alone, yet still feel incredibly lonely.
Therefore, a more important measure to explain how social health affects physical health is the perception of how lonely people feel.
This appears to be a much better predictor of the adverse effects of loneliness. The perception of loneliness has more to do with the quality of relationships than the quantity.
Using three simple questions, you can check with yourself how your social network is doing. Answer the questions each time with “rarely” (1 point), “sometimes” (2 points) or “often” (3 points).
- How often do you feel isolated from others?
- How often do you feel left out?
- How often do you feel like you are missing company?
Now add the total score. You should score between 3 (not lonely) and 9 (very lonely).
The second aspect of social support is social inclusion or, in the opposite case, social exclusion. Man is a herd animal. We all have the need to belong somewhere. When we don’t, we are miserable.
A game of Cyberball in the MRI scanner
This was also scientifically demonstrated by an experiment in which subjects had to play a simple game, Cyberball, against each other.
In doing so, the subjects could throw a ball at each other via the computer. One of the participants was in an MRI scanner to measure brain activity.
At some point, the participants stopped throwing the ball at the subject in the scanner altogether (they were part of the research team, but the subject did not know that).
Brain scans showed that the brain area where pain is registered lit up. Thus, social exclusion (in this case, not having a ball thrown at us) causes us the same pain as a physical injury.
The brain scans showed reduced social pain when the researchers gave the subject a painkiller (paracetamol).
Like purely physical pain, social pain is a warning signal to ourselves, a sign that we are in the danger zone and need to take action to have more or better social contacts and thus improve our health.
Social exclusion has a similar effect to physical pain, which can be explained evolutionarily.
Dependence on others from birth
First, we are entirely dependent on others at birth as human beings.
Perhaps, for this reason, a kind of mechanism has developed that causes pain when a baby feels abandoned.
Parents who are separated from their children also often feel the same pain.
Dependence on group for survival
A second reason is that we have always been very dependent on the group throughout our evolution, for example, for food or protection from other predators.
Social exclusion used to mean almost certain death. That may not be true now, but the need to belong to a group is still ingrained in us.
While people today can survive quite well on their own, social exclusion still harms our health today.
Increased risk of chronic conditions due to discrimination
Research shows that discrimination, regardless of its basis (ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), has a negative impact on numerous mechanisms underlying chronic conditions.
For example, negative effects were shown in the areas of:
- expression of genes that can be linked to chronic conditions,
- telomere length,
- heart rate variability, and
- C-reactive protein or CRP, a substance that is an indicator of inflammatory responses.
Not surprisingly, people who experience discrimination score worse on just about every health problem studied.
They appear to be at greater risk for:
- high blood pressure,
- metabolic syndrome, and
- coronary artery calcification.
Other studies have shown that suicide in gay people is two to seven times higher than in similar heterosexual groups.
The effect of social exclusion is worst among people who are excluded by their own group.
This is the case, for example, with groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
These have powerful bonds within the group that give the members a strong sense of mutual belonging on the one hand but can also turn into the opposite.
If members are then excluded because of their views or behavior, this form of social exclusion can have serious consequences.
Short-term and long-term consequences for adolescents
Social integration, as mentioned, is vital for everyone, but in adolescents, its impact is even greater.
Often the harmful effects of a lack of social contact are not apparent until many years later, in the form of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, etc.
But there is also an impact in the short term. For young people, “belonging” is extremely important, and many are willing to go to great lengths to conform to the (unwritten) social norms of the group.
This can lead to anorexia, for example, to conform to an unrealistic ideal of beauty. For example, a third of teens have gone on a diet before because they were worried about their body image.
An additional problem here is that we have less and less control over how young people are influenced, partly because traditional media, magazines, and television are increasingly being replaced by influencers and social networks.
A particular form of exclusion is exclusion based on illness.
People being excluded from the group because of their health status is not new. For example, people with leprosy are shunned because of the fear of contamination.
But even today, great taboos rest on certain conditions. For example, a study highlighted the effect of stigmatization on African seropositive migrant women.
Because of the taboo they experienced, most wanted to keep their status hidden at all costs from the community in which they lived.
In some cases, even their husbands and children did not know they were HIV positive.
Medicines were hidden, and one of the women even said she had cancer so as not to be suspected of having “the four-letter disease,” as the African community calls AIDS.
People with mental health problems are in a similar situation. Fortunately, due to thorough awareness campaigns, mental issues are increasingly seen as an illness that can happen to anyone.
- Jackson, et al., Associations between age discrimination and health and wellbeing: cross-sectional and prospective analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, The Lancet Public Health, 2019
- Ikram, et al., Perceived Ethnic Discrimination and the Metabolic Syndrome in Ethnic Minority Groups: The Healthy Life in an Urban Setting Study, Psychosomatic Medicine, 2017
- Yang, et al., Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span, PNAS, 2016
- Mental Health Foundation, 2021
- Arrey, et al., “It’s My Secret”: Fear of Disclosure among Sub-Saharan African Migrant Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Belgium, PLOS One, 2015
Another factor that plays an important role in the level of social support is a feeling of connectedness within a community.
Less involvement in communities
In the past, people were almost automatically members of many communities:
- a political party,
- the church,
- the parish,
- a sports club,
- the trade union,
- the local pub,
- the brass band, etc.
Many of these communities or clubs struggle with sharply declining membership numbers.
Technology has empowered people to organize differently, less set in stone and with more non-committal agreements.
More freedom but less sense of belonging
However, there was much more social control back then, so people had to be more in step and conform to what was socially desirable.
Our current society allows for much more freedom, which is obviously positive, but also a downside. In particular, our sense of belonging has declined significantly.
This social change is also reflected in how we live together at the household level. For example, the number of households consisting of just one person is constantly on the rise.
Loss of contact with the elderly
Parents, children, grandparents, and often other relatives formed one large family for thousands of years. They spent many hours together with each other.
That has changed profoundly in only a couple of generations. Elderly care is now entrusted to specialized institutions.
These are increasingly run as purely economic enterprises that, no matter how motivated the caring staff may be, have the choice between making a profit or going bankrupt.
It is sometimes shocking for people from other cultures to observe how we treat the elderly and those in need of care in our society. For example, placing the elderly in care homes may be considered as not done.
We also see that both parents have a job in more and more families and sometimes even take a second job to make ends meet.
This inevitably reduces the time spent with others in the same household. This is not an individual problem but a social evolution.
However, the result is that people can hardly choose to take on a long-term role as caregivers for their family members in need of care.
However, studies on the impact of social relationships suggest that a more natural social support system, e.g., from friends and family, helps better than social support from professional services.
Science shows that a lack of social support is detrimental to our mental and physical health.
Namely, our brain perceives the pain from social exclusion as similar to actual physical pain. This is likely rooted in evolution since our forefathers were once dependent on others for survival.
Social exclusion also increases the risk of chronic conditions in the short and long term. The tighter the group one is excluded from and the younger the individual, the more significant the impact.
Our decreased social support is also a natural effect of society’s evolution. We have less contact with our immediate family, and the households consist of fewer persons.
This, combined with a society where everyone is working more to make ends meet, doesn’t leave much time left to spend with our elderly, let alone caring for them.
Though studies have shown that friends and family taking care of the elderly is better for our health, the reality is different. For example, we often request the help of professional services and care homes.
The key takeaway is that rekindling more natural and real-life social support systems may benefit our health and overall well-being instead of the increasingly secluded lives we may lead.