Unlike lifespan, which is how long an individual will live, healthspan is the amount of time someone is generally in good health. One’s healthspan can determine how long they can continue to enjoy life without being limited by health issues.
Social connections play a vital role in extending healthspan. Social connections include relationships, family bonds, community, and social support networks. Such connections profoundly influence both physical and mental health, contribute to disease prevention, and improve injury and illness recovery. Many people understand the importance of diet, exercise, and managing stress as cornerstones of health, but let’s explore what the science says about social connections.
How Community Impacts Health
Research has revealed a significant link between mortality (death) and social isolation, loneliness, and a small social network. Studies suggest that isolated individuals have a 1.5 times greater risk of cardiovascular events, such as high blood pressure and heart attack deaths. Additionally, individuals with stronger social relationships have a 50% increased chance of surviving a heart attack. In contrast, people with the highest levels of social isolation face a two to three times higher risk of heart attack death.
Being socially isolated can also make you more susceptible to infections. Experts have begun referring to loneliness’s effect on health as “immunometabollic syndrome,” a complex condition characterized by poor immune function and metabolic abnormalities. Loneliness, which increases death risk by 26%, has been linked to immunometabollic syndrome. Translation? Social isolation has been proven to be as risky to your health as smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, and high blood pressure.
Mental Health and Social Connections
There is a strong relationship between social factors and mental health conditions. Having high-quality relationships with others can help prevent mental health issues, like depression, cognitive decline, and self-harm. After childbirth, social isolation has been associated with negative outcomes, such as anxiety, stress, and regret among women. Low social participation is also linked to an increased risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, and loneliness is tied to higher rates of depression and suicide.
Examples of Social Connectedness
If you’re unsure what counts as being socially connected, here are some examples from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Having close bonds with others.
- Feeling loved, cared for, valued, and appreciated by others.
- The number, variety, and types of relationships a person has.
- Having meaningful and regular social exchanges.
- A sense of support from friends, families, and others in the community.
- A sense of belonging.
- Having more than one person to turn to for support. This includes emotional support when feeling down, and physical support, like getting a ride to the doctor’s office or grocery store or help with childcare on short notice.
- Access to safe public areas to gather (such as parks and recreation centers).
Social connections provide opportunities for support, companionship, and a sense of belonging, which can reduce stress, improve overall well-being, enhance immune function, and promote healthy behaviors. By fostering meaningful relationships and maintaining a strong social network, you can tap into the powerful benefits of social connections to extend your healthspan and enjoy an improved quality of life.