In one of her columns, Jane Brody, the veteran New York Times health writer, wrote about the gaping hole left in her life by the death of her husband of 44 years—and about the link between social relations and health in general.
That got me thinking. I’m sure my good health is due as much to the social support I get from my family and network of friends as to the steps I take to safeguard it.
That column also made me think of my friend and colleague Len Syme, known professionally as S. Leonard Syme, professor emeritus here at the School of Public Health. Len essentially created the field of modern “social epidemiology”—the study of the effects of social relationships and other social determinants on health. He has been a member of our Editorial Board since our first issue in 1984.
I was glad that Brody highlighted an important 1979 study done at UC Berkeley by Lisa Berkman (now a professor at Harvard) and Len, who was her advisor. It followed 6,900 adults here in Alameda County and found that those with the strongest social ties were half as likely to die over a nine-year period as the most isolated people.
Family and friends may encourage us, directly or indirectly, to take better care of ourselves. But it’s more than that. When the Alameda data were adjusted for initial health status and factors like smoking, alcohol, obesity, physical activity and use of preventive health services, the results still held up. In fact, people with strong social ties and unhealthy lifestyles tended to live longer than those with few ties but healthier habits.
Since then, these findings have been confirmed by other researchers, some trained by Len, others influenced by his work. Notably, a 2010 analysis of 148 studies involving more than 300,000 people linked stronger social relationships to a 50 percent increased chance of survival, on average, over the course of the studies.
One likely explanation is that social support “buffers” against stress—that is, it provides emotional and tangible resources that help us deal with adverse events and illness and maybe even enhances resistance to illness.
Being part of a social network often gives us meaningful roles that boost self-esteem and purpose of life, which in turn can improve mental and physical health.
The importance of good social relationships for health has now been shown in almost every study ever done, Len points out. We are now hard at work to better understand the biological mechanisms that can explain these findings.
Many people who have few friends or family members can do little or nothing about it because of personal problems or just the luck of the draw. But for others, making an effort to get out of themselves by, for instance, joining a club or volunteering for a cause they believe in, can add greatly to their lives. That’s what Jane Brody said she’ll do more of.