Study says social networks could help cut health risks, can increase lifespan like exercise and diet

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Teens smoking cigarette
Teenagers smoke and talk in front of a vacant business in Ushuaia, Argentina, December 31, 2010. Reuters

Having a lot of healthy social relationships during adolescence and late adulthood could significantly help increase the lifespan of an individual, a new study suggests. Social networks have been found to reduce the risks of heart disease, stroke and cancer similar to the good effects of an active lifestyle and diet.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows social isolation during adolescence has increased the risk of inflammation similar to the effect of an inactive lifestyle while having social relationships was said to protect people from abdominal obesity. Furthermore, in old age, lacking strong social ties has been found to be more harmful to health compared to diabetes on developing and controlling hypertension.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the US said the study is the first to show the link between social relationships and measures of physical well-being like abdominal obesity, inflammation, and high blood pressure. All of the conditions could potentially lead to long-term health problems, such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.

The team said that in early and late adulthood, the size of an individual’s social network has a significant role to their health. However, in middle adulthood, it's the quality of the relationships that delivered benefits than the number of social connections.

"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 Centre.

The findings come from the analysis of data from four nationally-representative surveys of the US, studying the lifespan of participants from adolescence to old age. The researchers assessed social integration, social support and social strain as the dimensions of social relationships.

Each social relationship was then evaluated with its association to the key markers for mortality risk such as blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index and circulating levels of C-reactive protein, a measure of systemic inflammation.

"We studied the interplay between social relationships, behavioural factors and physiological dysregulation that, over time, lead to chronic diseases of aging -- cancer being a prominent example," said Yang Claire Yang, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, CPC fellow and a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Centre.

Yang highlighted the findings which indicate that doctors, clinicians and other health workers should “redouble their efforts” in helping the public understand the importance of strong social bonds throughout the course of all of their lives.