Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Social Relationships Good For Health

So concludes this study in PLOS Medicine. A sample:

Data across 308,849 individuals, followed for an average of 7.5 years, indicate that individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity). These findings also reveal significant variability in the predictive utility of social relationship variables, with multidimensional assessments of social integration being optimal when assessing an individual's risk for mortality and evidence that social isolation has a similar influence on mortality to other measures of social relationships. The overall effect remained consistent across a number of factors, including age, sex, initial health status, follow-up period, and cause of death, suggesting that the association between social relationships and mortality may be general, and efforts to reduce risk should not be isolated to subgroups such as the elderly.

To draw a parallel, many decades ago high mortality rates were observed among infants in custodial care (i.e., orphanages), even when controlling for pre-existing health conditions and medical treatment [201]–[204]. Lack of human contact predicted mortality. The medical profession was stunned to learn that infants would die without social interaction. This single finding, so simplistic in hindsight, was responsible for changes in practice and policy that markedly decreased mortality rates in custodial care settings. Contemporary medicine could similarly benefit from acknowledging the data: Social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults.

Physicians, health professionals, educators, and the public media take risk factors such as smoking, diet, and exercise seriously; the data presented here make a compelling case for social relationship factors to be added to that list. With such recognition, medical evaluations and screenings could routinely include variables of social well-being; medical care could recommend if not outright promote enhanced social connections; hospitals and clinics could involve patient support networks in implementing and monitoring treatment regimens and compliance, etc. Health care policies and public health initiatives could likewise benefit from explicitly accounting for social factors in efforts aimed at reducing mortality risk. Individuals do not exist in isolation; social factors influence individuals' health though cognitive, affective, and behavioral pathways. Efforts to reduce mortality via social relationship factors will require innovation, yet innovation already characterizes many medical interventions that extend life at the expense of quality of life. Social relationship–based interventions represent a major opportunity to enhance not only the quality of life but also survival.

I believe this study is very significant, and ought to lead all of us, as individuals, educators, etc., to re-think what the constituents of a good society (and good life) are. How can we better ensure we have the opportunity to live flourishing lives? We can start by replacing the current obsession with consumption and economic growth, which is premised on a vision of humans as "homo economicus", with a greater focus on the social (and natural) determinants of health and happiness. Thus we ought to take Aristotle's contention that we are a "political animal" much more seriously than we have.

The Globe has the scoop on the study here.