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