Wellness Wednesday: Family and Social Support and Health

I have a pretty healthy family, and a pretty healthy group of friends. However, sometimes someone get sick or needs a surgery. I am always grateful and amazed at how people rally to help. At the same time, I think of my many patients who have to go it alone, even though they are not doing well. 

What is the relationship of social support to health ? It’s huge. I decided that if I write a blog post highlighting this interesting connection, that more people would connect with others in times of need. 

The most common form of social connection is marriage. Marriage is clearly associated with health. But there are some interesting particulars. Numerous studies over the last 150 years have noted this association. In more recent years, the association was questioned, on the hypothesis that perhaps healthier people marry. This turned out not to be true. In fact, unhealthier men were more likely to marry. 

If you parse the date further, the “ marriage effect “ is seen to be stronger as couples age. Moreover the effect is stronger for men than it is for women. Non married stable partners also have greater health than singles, however not as much as married people. There is not yet enough data to comment on whether same sex married couples share this health benefit of marriage. 

What are the particular mental and physical advantages associated with marriage and social support ? 

  • decreased depressive symptoms
  • better recovery from episodes of depression
  • lower heart rate and blood pressure 
  • lower serum cholesterol 
  • higher immune function 
  • reduced risk of Alzheimers 
  • better outcomes for hospitalized patients
  • decreased likelihood of chronic disease, disability, mental illness, and death

How do marriage and social support confer this improve effect on both mental and physical health ? There are several observations about those who are married, partnered or have good social support that seem likely to hold the answers : 

  • better social connectons
  • presence of companionship 
  • better emotional support 
  • better economic well being and more likely to be insured
  • more likely to keep medical appointments and get recommended screenings
  • more likely to take prescribed medications 
  • safer behaviors 
  • better nutrition 
  • more likely to get regular exercise

Dan Buettner in Blue Zones, identified social support as a principal correlate of extreme  longevity. He was focusing on groups of people around the world who lived healthy until past the age of 100. Regardless of place or culture, social support was key.

I think this is a powerful reminder for all of us to assess our our family and social connections. Are our relationships in good working order ? Those relationships may be more important than we realized.