Health care spending continues to rise. In an attempt to reduce costs and improve outcomes, policy makers and employers are increasingly trying to encourage better diet, exercise, and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle that might improve health over the long time. But there is another form of preventative medicine that is possibly even more important, and which health policy barely considers: social connections between people.
The connections between social connections and health extend to almost every aspect of health. Multiple, high-quality studies have shown that social isolation leads to shorter lifespan, poorer markers of health (higher blood pressure, heart function, and so on) and decreased mental health.
A big part of it is that friends can encourage each other to practice healthier behaviors— it’s a lot easier to make yourself get up and go for a walk with a pal, or to take the time to enjoy healthier meals if they are shared. A friend can also encourage you to see a doctor or check on you if you’re dangerously ill.
The greatest benefits, however, come from stress reduction. Pulse rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones all seem to be higher in people coping with isolation. Some studies even suggest that the meaning derived from relationships inspires people to stay healthy. Mental health benefits from emotional support provided by others, and underlying emotional disturbance can be exacerbated by isolation.
Of course, not all relationships are equal. While positive interactions improve health, negative relationships—abusive spouses, manipulative acquaintances—have a correspondingly negative influence on health.
Additionally, a lot of evidence comes from correlations the benefits of social interactions are clear but it is hard to say with certainty that social networks are the cause of better health. What if health actually determines social networks, instead? In a large study of U.S. adolescents, teenagers who self-reported poorer health also reported having smaller or non-existent social networks. However, some effects may be due to the shallow nature of teenage life—illnesses that rendered students less attractive (girls) or weaker (boys) had large impacts. Other aspects of illness, e.g. missed school or inability to share in certain social activities, are actually social isolation in a different form.
It does seem clear that isolation, whether caused by illness or not, tends to lead to further isolation. Public policy does nothing to address this. In fact, many policies, like a complete lack of support for adult caregivers, tend to increase isolation rather than provide support. There are also plenty of people who are happy to be alone. But for those who would prefer to have more of a social life, a lack of meaningful relationships can significantly diminish their health.