Can social relationships help us live longer?

Social relationships can now be added to the short list of factors that predict a person’s odds of living or dying. A new American study has found that our relationships with friends, family, neighbours and colleagues can improve our odds of survival by 50 per cent. They also found that benefit of social relationships are greater than from regular exercise and similar to stopping smoking (if you smoke 15 cigarettes a day), and that what they call ‘low social interaction’ – ie isolation – has the same health risk as not exercising and being an alcoholic.

The positive impacts of social networks – of knowing people who live locally – on crime, on social capital and on wellbeing are well recognised. Our work on Future Communities takes this as one of our starting points, and we plan to carry out practical work looking at how social networks can be encouraged and nurtured in new housing developments. We are already working with Peabody Trust in London (on two estates in Fulham and in the City) to see how their new free wifi network and laptop loan scheme can generate contact between neighbours, and what impact this has on residents’ wellbeing.

We can add this new evidence to our understanding of why it’s good to help people get to know each other. We already knew that social relationships don’t just help communities, they help individuals feel better about their lives. But now we know that they can alo make us all live longer, and stay healthy.
The team from US Brigham Young University researchers analyzed data from 148 previously published longitudinal studies that measured frequency of human interaction and tracked health outcomes for a period of seven and a half years on average.