Why social health is so important

Relations
May 16, 2022
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According to a recent social survey, over 10% of Canadians have reported always or often feeling lonely. This statistic may not come as much of a surprise given that we’re two years into a global pandemic. In fact, there has been a growing awareness of what some might refer to as an epidemic of loneliness.  

When we think about our overall health and wellbeing, most of us think about our physical health and mental health... But there’s another facet of health that appears to be just as important: our social health. Humans are social animals and it’s in our nature to want to form bonds and connect with others. And interestingly, the quantity and quality of our social relationships can impact not only our mental and physical health, but also our risk of mortality.  

Social health reflects our ability to form meaningful and rewarding relationships with others. Having good social health means:  

  • Forming and maintaining healthy relationships
  • Having a social support system
  • Spending time and connecting with others
  • Participating in and engaging with your social environment

Research has long shown the strong link between our social health and mental health. For example, one study found that having smaller social networks and fewer close relationships is associated with more severe depression symptoms. This study also discovered that social integration, in particular, appears to play a significant role in the onset of depression. In other words, people with lower levels of social participation were more prone to developing depression. Unfortunately, the effects of social isolation can also lead to much more severe consequences. In a recent study, researchers found that both physical isolation (i.e., living alone) and the feeling of isolation (i.e., loneliness) are closely linked to the presence of suicidal thoughts as well as suicide attempts.  

Aside from impacting our psychological wellbeing, our social health also has a substantial impact on our physical health and mortality. Studies have shown a link between a low quantity and quality of social ties and the development and progression of cardiovascular disease, including an increased risk of stroke. Social health can also impact mortality risk in individuals with pre-existing medical conditions. Among adults with coronary artery disease, those who were socially isolated had a risk of cardiac death that was 2.4 times greater than those who were more socially connected.  

The scientific literature is clear: good social health is a necessary ingredient for living a healthier and longer life.

An investigation that combined the findings from 148 studies determined that there is a 50% increased likelihood of survival for individuals with stronger social relationships. Further investigations found that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone all contributed to an increased risk for mortality. And, tellingly, there were no differences observed between physical isolation and the feeling of isolation on mortality risk, suggesting that feeling alone has just as much of an impact on mortality than physically being alone.  

Ultimately, if we don’t have or maintain good social health, our mental and physical health, as well as our mortality rate, will suffer the consequences. In fact, enhancing social health might even be viewed as a form of preventative medicine. It’s likely that having strong and meaningful social connections can help prevent many physical and psychological ailments from developing in the first place.  

Sources

1. Canadian Social Survey: Loneliness in Canada. Statistics Canada; 2021. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/211124/dq211124e-eng.htm

2. Social Health. In: Encyclopedia of Public Health. ; 2021. https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/social-health

3. Barnett PA, Gotlib IH. Psychosocial functioning and depression: distinguishing among antecedents, concomitants, and consequences. Psychol Bull. 1988;104(1):97.

4. Calati R, Ferrari C, Brittner M, et al. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors and social isolation: A narrative review of the literature. J Affect Disord. 2019;245:653-667.

5. Everson-Rose SA, Lewis TT. Psychosocial factors and cardiovascular diseases. Annu Rev Public Health. 2005;26:469-500.

6. Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, Ronzi S, Hanratty B. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart. 2016;102(13):1009-1016.

7. Brummett BH, Barefoot JC, Siegler IC, et al. Characteristics of socially isolated patients with coronary artery disease who are at elevated risk for mortality. Psychosom Med. 2001;63(2):267-272.

8. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Med. 2010;7(7):e1000316.

9. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015;10(2):227-237.

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