Research by sociologist Kathleen Mullan Harris and others shows the value of social networks and personal interactions to health. (Photo by Donn Young)
Relationships as important to health as exercise, eating well
The more social ties people have at an early age, the better their health is at the beginning and end of their lives, according to a new study from UNC sociologists.
The study is the first to definitively link social relationships with concrete measures of physical wellbeing such as abdominal obesity, inflammation and high blood pressure, all of which can lead to long-term health problems.
“Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active,” said Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor of Sociology and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, builds on previous research that shows that aging adults live longer if they have more social connections.
Specifically, the team found that the sheer size of a person’s social network was important for health in early and late adulthood. In middle adulthood, it wasn’t the number of social connections that mattered, but what those connections provided in terms of social support or strain.
“Our analysis makes it clear that doctors, clinicians and other health workers should redouble their efforts to help the public understand how important strong social bonds are throughout the course of all of our lives,” said Yang Claire Yang, a sociology professor, CPC fellow and a member of Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.