Guest blog: The Group is the Cure

This guest blog was written by Professor Catherine Haslam, recently of Exeter University and now at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Despite living in a world that claims to value its social relationships, we still have a blind spot when it comes to harnessing these relationships in protecting our health and well-being.

Our tendency is to rely primarily on medical and technological advance, but we know now that we do so at our peril if we fail to build our social networks at the same time.

Belonging to social groups and networks — whether they involve family, friends, work colleagues, or other relationships — has been shown, in numerous studies, to be an important predictor of health; just as important as diet and exercise.

The Social Effect

When Holt-Lunstad and colleagues evaluated this collection of research in their meta-analysis, they found that the magnitude of the effect of social relationships on mortality was comparable to quitting smoking, and exceeded that for obesity, high blood pressure, and physical inactivity.

Perhaps most important was their finding that people with adequate social relationships had a 50% greater likelihood of survival than those with poor relationships. Moreover, these effects appear to hold strong even after controlling for variables that are typically associated with adverse health.

But these effects are not simply confined to physical health. Social groups can also protect cognitive and mental health. In our own work we have found that people who are able to retain important social relationships after their stroke, have better well-being in the crucial stages of recovery.

We have also found that helping older people in care to develop new social bonds in the course of joining new groups, reduces cognitive decline, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The critical curative ingredient in these studies was the “group”. When we examined directly the effects of the same intervention delivered in groups and one-on-one, it was only those people who participated in groups who showed improvements in cognitive and mental health.

We are only now beginning to understand the potential that social groups offer for health, but we have yet to fully reap their benefits. To succeed in this endeavour, we need to move away from the view that social groups are peripheral and invest in them as the treatment and the cure.

6 thoughts on “Guest blog: The Group is the Cure”

  1. If we isolate ourselves it leads to depression,loneliness and other related illnesses. I feel this includes all ages.Friendships are key to happiness and I say more for meeting outside in groups and social activities and not so much on the internet. I use the internet to communicate with family over seas but much prefer to meet people out socially it is so important to our health and happiness. I am sure it helps to keep Dementia and Mental Health issues at bay.I agree with this blog!

  2. well i dont agree. i,m 70 years old and whenever ive been in a social group i find i go very quiet. mainly because i have a condition (which my brother, an audiologist, told me i probably had), This condition isnt hearing loss, its one of old age where we miss,dont hear, the last sylables of words and by the time we have worked out what the word was we have lost the gist/thread of the conversation. i much prefer to be in small groups of no more than 4 people. better still on one to one. my mind is still very active, though my body is less so due to various ailments and conditions. i go on outings with my daughter, my son, and my nephew. first by taxi.occasionally bus, or train. to different towns. we have lunch. wander round for a short while, have a coffee. whatever or for however much time the weather, my breathing and my old bones and joints allows.sometimes only half an hour other times much longer if theres seats to rest on. with my son we go on the bus to historical places that are easy for me to get to. and my nephew drives me out into the dales,moors, countryside,& coast.looking mainly at castles abbeys and priories. my passion is history and ive researched my family tree back to 1600 on one line. admitted i no longer do that as it needs long hours staring at lists to find 1 small particle of info. can no longer do that.makes my eyes ache.but still keep up with others online that are researching same lines as mine.and still belong to our local family history society though dont go to meetings now.
    i know of one other old lady,aged 87 , who is the same as me, tho she does go down to the lounge in the sheltered housing flats she lives in, on a wednesday. but like me she only speaks to the other 2-3 ppl sat at her table. no matter who they are.but like me does bertter in small groups of 4 or less or on one to one.
    not everyones alike. and some are quite reserved as they get older. i just hope if they bring this sort of suggestion in its not made compulsory.cos i would not take part no matter who said i had to.
    And thats what bothers me most. and a lot of others in same boat…. trying to make a stand for my rights and being dubbed as being senile. ive seen it happen. younger ppl who think they know it all dont know a person with a brain from one whose brain is going. not all old people who object to doing something are senile.
    sorry this is so long. i wanted to get my point across properly

  3. It’s good to hear these views. Hugosmum70 is right to point out that different people seek out social connections in different ways. It is often assumed that groups need to be large, but smaller groups (including only 3-4 people) can be just as effective. The important thing is that the group is one that holds meaning and value for us, as this is the critical factor in gaining their social support. Quite a lot of our work has involved older people living in care and these groups are deliberately smaller for similar reasons that Hugosmum raises. They are no less important because they are small; in fact many people say these can be very important sources of encouragement and support. The main point of the blog is to raise the importance of remaining socially connected. This can be achieved in different ways – in larger/smaller groups, that can include anyone from immediate family, wider family, friendship groups, book clubs, dinner clubs, bowling groups and so on. Taking part in these does not mean that you should avoid more personal, or one-to-one relationships. Both forms of relationship, social and personal, are important and we should try to maintain both where we can.

  4. smaller groups of 2 or 4 are best for developing friendship, companinship, the sharing of interests and emotional support particularly where self-esteem or confidence is concerned where affected by ill health. I for one would not feel comfortable in a larger group.

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