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Do social ties affect our health? Exploring the biology of relationships

Part 3: The many types of social connections

The last two articles focused on marriage, but other types of relationships are important, too. These can include friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, clubs, and religious groups. Studies have found that people who have larger and more diverse types of social ties tend to live longer. They also tend to have better physical and mental health than people with fewer such relationships. Social support may be especially protective during difficult times.

Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has been exploring the links between relationships and health for more than three decades. In one study, his team exposed more than 200 healthy volunteers to the common cold virus and observed them for a week in a controlled setting. “We found that the more diverse people’s social networks – the more types of connections they had – the less likely they were to develop a cold after exposure to the virus,” Cohen says. He and his team have since found evidence that people with more types of connections also tend to have better health behaviors (such as not smoking or drinking) and more positive emotions.

The scientists have also been exploring whether simply believing you have strong social support may help protect against the harms of stress. “Long-term conflicts with others are a potent stressor that can affect health. But we’ve found that its effects are buffered by perceived social support,” Cohen says. “People who have high levels of conflict and low levels of social support are much more likely to get sick when exposed to a virus. But those with high conflict and high levels of social support seem protected.” In addition, hugging seemed to shield against stress. People who reported having more frequent hugs were less likely to develop an infection after viral exposure.

Social ties can have mixed effects on our health. But overall, research suggests that the benefits of interactions with others can outweigh any risks. “It’s generally healthy for people to try to belong to different groups, to volunteer in different ways, and be involved with a church or involved in their neighborhood,” Cohen says. “Involvement with other people across diverse situations clearly can have a very potent, very positive effect on health.”

Article adapted from the National Institutes of Health February 2017 News in Health, available online.