PROVO — No man is an island, and if he tries to be one, he may die sooner, according to a new BYU analysis.
Researchers have discovered that people with greater social relationships are 50 percent more likely to live longer than their socially reclusive counterparts.
In fact, a lack of friends is as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. It's also twice as damaging as obesity and more harmful than not exercising, according to the study.
"We're not in any way trying to downplay the seriousness of these other risk factors, (which) are very important," said author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, associate professor of psychology at BYU. "Rather, we're trying to make the point that we need to start taking our social relationships just as seriously as we take these other factors."
The researchers combed through thousands of studies since 1900 to find 148 that dealt with their research questions. Those studies asked more than 300,000 subjects about relationships and then tracked their health outcomes for an average of 7.5 years.
Friends and social relationships are healthy not only because they help us buffer negative or stressful events in our lives, Holt-Lunstad said, but they also encourage us to make better choices, decrease our risk-taking behavior and provide meaningful roles in our lives.
Although the definition of social relationships varied across the papers, most of the studies pre-dated online social networking, such as Facebook or Twitter, "but I would be skeptical that they would be as effective as face-to-face contact," Holt-Lunstad said.
In fact, one of the concerns about online relationships is that many stay superficial, promoting the trend that "people feel more connected but less truly intimate," said Timothy B. Smith, co-author and counseling psychology professor at BYU.
Other research has also shows that fewer intimate connections are caused by greater social mobility, delayed marriage, dual-career families, increased single-residence household and increased age-related disability, according to the paper, published in the journal PLoS Medicine. BYU undergraduate Brad Layton also worked on the paper.
Families are one of the most important social networks yet frequently are taken for granted, Smith said, alluding to other studies that have shown longer life spans for married individuals.
"Our grandparents would laugh that we're even doing the research, because it makes so much intuitive sense," Smith said. "Yet we don't think about it."
But we should, he said.
Elementary schools should be teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and relationships. Hospitals could involve spouses and family members in medical treatments and procedures. Doctors should ask patients about their smoking and dietary habits, as well their support group.
Many hospitals are already taking these steps, Smith said, and "realizing that the patient lives within a system. You need to involve the whole system to provide holistic and effective care."
Despite the remarkable findings, the authors were quick to add that their results don't excuse people from exercising or eating well.
"Exercise helps you through certain pathways, like cholesterol, blood pressure," Smith said. "But social relationships help you through different pathways. It's not like you're going to exercise or have friends. Do both and you'll be even better."