Social ties at a young age can influence health in a positive way at the beginning and end of people's lives, according to researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The study marks the first time that social relationships have been directly linked to measures of physical well-being, including high blood pressure and inflammation, all factors that can stimulate more dangerous health problems such as heart disease and cancer.
"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," Kathleen Harris, who participated in the research, said in a press release.
The study found that the size of a person's social network plays in important role in health during early and late adulthood - in particular, social isolation during adolescence increased the risk of inflammation whereas being integrated socially decreased the chances of abdominal obesity. Furthermore, in old age, social isolation poses more damaging effects to health than diabetes.
When the researchers examined middle adulthood subjects, they found that it wasn't the amount of social connections that had an impact on health but how these connections affected social support or strain.
"The relationship between health and the degree to which people are integrated in large social networks is strongest at the beginning and at the end of life, and not so important in middle adulthood, when the quality, not the quantity, of social relationships matters," Harris said.
The study utilized data from four national U.S. surveys that covered age groups of adolescence all the way to old age and evaluated social integration, social support and social strain within this time span. The researchers then made links between these age ranges and social dimensions with four mortality risks: blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference and levels of C-reactive protein in blood circulation, a measure of 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," said Yang Claire Yang, who participated in the research. "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 findings were published in the Jul. 20 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.