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In the past few years, the media has placed more attention on the mind, body and spirit connection with your health. Your health is affected by more than just physical aspects; your social life in fact can have a large impact on mortality and longevity. Many do not realize how important relationships are to the quality of their lives.

Your daily interactions with others provide a way to release stress, contributing to a healthier immune system and overall better health. When you have someone to talk to about your terrible boss or your financial concerns, they can sympathize, provide solutions or offer advice. What you may not realize is that all these factors can lead to improved health and a longer life expectancy. Genetically, there are 209 socially regulated genes identified in the human body, including those involved in the immune system, cell proliferation and responses to stress. You will discover as you read the following insights how important social interactions are to our body.

Numerous studies have shown that having few relationships or weak social ties can be dangerous to your health. A recent article from Brigham Young University reported that social connections improve the odds of survival by 50 percent. A poor social life was equivalent to: smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic, being twice as harmful as obesity and more harmful than not exercising. The health impact of social networks on mortality has actually been studied since the 70s. A nine-year follow-up study of 6,928 adults in California showed that people who lacked social and community ties had increased mortality compared to those with more extensive contacts. A similar fourteen-year follow-up study of 1,752 adults found that having more social contacts meant delayed mortality, particularly with cardiovascular risk. The feeling of loneliness was associated with increased cardiovascular death, especially in males.

Loneliness and isolation have been cited as causing many adverse health outcomes including increased risk of developing inflammatory disease (autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.), low-grade peripheral inflammation, cardiovascular disease, systolic blood pressure changes and more susceptibility to developing colds. There is clear evidence of the importance of social connections with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues to our health. Nevertheless, these interactions are changing with the major influence of online social networks.

There has been a steady decline in the amount of face to face social interactions with the rise of electronic media use. Internet, email and text messaging do ultimately create many advantages and conveniences for communication. At the same time they are also changing the way we interact with each other.  The Internet Paradox was a study completed over a decade ago with 73 families. The researchers concluded that increased use of the internet was associated with a decline in communication between family members in the house, a decline in the size of their social circle and increases in their levels of depression and loneliness. This study was published in 1998 and predated the development of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, instant messaging, etc. The authors did in fact complete a follow-up report in 2001. The Internet Paradox Revisited was more optimistic about the internet actually increasing social interactions. While it is true that you may have more connections the more friends you have on Facebook or the more followers you have on twitter, but the face-to-face contact is what appears to be the health determining factor. Dr. Aric Sigman suggests that the lack of real social networking involving personal interaction may have biological effects. He proposes that this could alter the way genes work, decrease immune response, lower hormone levels, diminish arterial function and influence mental performance. These changes can lead to increased risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease and dementia. The face-to–face interaction is the critical factor to your health.

At Nature Medicine, we are not opposed to social networking technology. On the contrary, we believe the collaborative opportunities and the ability to stay in touch with distant friends and relatives is quite valuable. We would however seek to make you aware of the implications to your health. Social media have actually been the subject of extensive research over the past couple of years; both positive and negative results have been determined. Improvements in self-esteem, strengthening of relationship ties and creating opportunities of conversation for those with low social skills have been found as a benefit. Alternatively, it may also cause depression, trigger eating disorders and split up marriages. According to a new study in 2009 from Loyola University, Facebook is cited in 1 out of 5 divorces and is the number one source for online evidence in over half of divorce cases. We doubt this was Mark Zuckerberg’s, Facebook’s developer, intention.

So the next time you are debating whether to go for a run, call a friend, visit a neighbour or keep a dinner date with your spouse, consider all the health benefits you may receive.


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  7. Sigman A. Well Connected?:The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking. Biologist. Volume 56 Number 1, pages 14-20. 19th February 2009.