Even ca­sual ties to oth­ers can im­prove your health

The Borneo Post - Nature and health - - Eq - By Jen­nifer Bre­heny Wal­lace

CLOSE re­la­tion­ships with fam­ily and friends, we know, are im­por­tant for our health and well-be­ing. But what about the peo­ple who make up our broader so­cial net­works: the par­ents at school drop-off, the neigh­bour down the street or that col­league in an­other de­part­ment who al­ways makes you laugh?

While re­search on the ben­e­fits of so­cial con­nec­tions has gen­er­ally fo­cused on the im­por­tance of “strong ties,” or the in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships we have with fam­ily and close friends, a grow­ing body of re­search is shed­ding light on the hid­den ben­e­fits of ca­sual ac­quain­tances, too. Sur­pris­ingly, these “weak ties” (that funny col­league, for ex­am­ple) can serve im­por­tant func­tions such as boost­ing phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal health and buffer­ing against stress and lone­li­ness, re­searchers have found.

“While most peo­ple can only keep up a few strong ties be­cause of the time and in­vest­ment they re­quire, weak ties can num­ber in the hun­dreds,” says Karen Finger­man, a pro­fes­sor of hu­man de­vel­op­ment and fam­ily sci­ences at Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, who has been study­ing the im­pact of such “pe­riph­eral” ties for the past 20 years.

Peo­ple with high lev­els of what psy­chol­o­gists call so­cial in­te­gra­tion - those who par­tic­i­pate in a broad range of re­la­tion­ships that con­sist of both in­ti­mate and weak ties - tend to be health­ier and hap­pier. Finger­man says that we don’t know why wide net­works have so many ben- efits, but a va­ri­ety of rea­sons have been pro­posed: They help buf­fer against stress, keep us calmer and en­cour­age pos­i­tive health be­hav­iours. At cer­tain stages of life, they also can

pro­vide novel in­for­ma­tion that might land us a job or get us to the doctor faster.

New re­search high­lights one way that di­verse net­works may in­flu­ence our phys­i­cal health. In a study pub­lished re­cently in the jour­nal Health Psy­chol­ogy, re­searchers an­a­lysed data from more than 4,000 peo­ple, ages 52 to 94.

The re­searchers wanted to see whether high lev­els of so­cial in­te­gra­tion were as­so­ci­ated, over time, with less age-re­lated loss of lung func­tion, an im­por­tant in­di­ca­tor of health and longevity. (Re­duced lung func­tion pre­dicts mor­tal­ity and dis­ease out­comes, such as car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, asthma and other lung dis­or­ders.)

Par­tic­i­pants’ lung func­tion was as­sessed at the start of the study and again four years later. The re­searchers also asked par­tic­i­pants to report their var­i­ous so­cial roles, which re­quired a min­i­mum of at least one in­ter­ac­tion a month and were lim­ited to eight roles to­tal. Af­ter con­trol­ling for age, ed­u­ca­tion, sex, weight and height, the re­searchers found that the more so­cial roles peo­ple en­gaged in, the bet­ter their lung func­tion four years later.

“We found that so­cial in­te­gra­tion has a graded ef­fect, so that ev­ery ad­di­tional so­cial role pro­tects you that much more,” says co-au­thor Shel­don Co­hen, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy and the di­rec­tor of the Lab­o­ra­tory for the Study of Stress, Im­mu­nity, and Dis­ease at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity. “Sur­pris­ingly, our data also found that low-in­ti­macy roles, like be­ing a vol­un­teer or a club mem­ber, were as equally ef­fec­tive in pro­tect­ing lung func­tion as high-in­ti­macy ones, like hav­ing a spouse or be­ing a par­ent, which high­lights the big im­pact a wide so­cial net­work can make on your health,” he says.

Co­hen ex­plains that be­long­ing to all of these net­works of­ten mo­ti­vates peo­ple to stay healthy so they can ful­fil re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the peo­ple in their lives. And peo­ple in a wide net­work tend to en­cour­age each other to en­gage in healthy be­hav­iours. “For these rea­sons, highly in­te­grated peo­ple tend to smoke less, ex­er­cise more and have more pos­i­tive emo­tions than neg­a­tive ones,” says Co­hen.– Wash­ing­ton Post.

We found that so­cial in­te­gra­tion has a graded ef­fect, so that ev­ery ad­di­tional so­cial role pro­tects you that much more. Co-au­thor Shel­don Co­hen

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