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Social Support: 6 Surprising Health Benefits of Staying Connected

We all know how good it feels to interact with people who understand what we’re going through, and who support our unique goals and dreams. What may be a bit more surprising to learn is that there’s actual science behind that feeling. It reveals that connecting with others helps elevate our energy and boost our well-being.

Take a look at these six stellar ways that social support connects us to a more vibrant, healthier, and longer-lasting life.

1. It Increases Immunity and Reduces Inflammation

In a groundbreaking study, Dr. Steven Cole uncovered how people who experience a sense of isolation release a chemical known as norepinephrine, which is normally associated with the “fight-or-flight” response. While this may cause a positive increase in our pro-inflammatory white blood cells, it also lowers our body’s level of antiviral compounds - known as interferons - making it more difficult to fight off viral infections.

In addition, those lacking in social connectivity appear to turn off gene markers targeted at telling the body when to shut off its cortisol supply. Since cortisol increases inflammatory responses, isolated people are more susceptible to a state of chronic inflammation. Science has now shown that this state is one of the main markers for many leading health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune disease.

The good news? Social connectivity helps elevate the parasympathetic nervous system’s activity, which lowers cortisol and norepinephrine levels to reduce inflammation, increase virus-fighting compounds, and bring our body back to an optimal state of health.

2. It Improves Bone Strength

A study of over 8,000 women revealed that those with better social ties had a reduced risk for bone fractures. A second body of research tracked 11,000 postmenopausal women for six years and backed this up, finding that those with lower social stress experienced a decreased level of unhealthy bone loss.

In men, the increased testosterone that’s linked to mediating high-stress situations led to a reduced number of bone fractures as well. This analysis highlights how building strong stress-reducing bonds really does boost our bones’ ability to withstand life’s many physical challenges.

3. It Boosts Brain Health

Social support has been shown to engage the executive center of our brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for ‘big picture’ thinking, impulse control, and empathy in decision-making. It helps reduce the fear and pain response, allowing us to properly regulate our emotional response during difficult situations. In this way, we don’t become as attached to the negativity of a situation, but instead can process it, learn from it, and move forward more effectively.

In addition, a long-running study that began in 1938 revealed that close, supportive relationships lessened the onslaught of mental deterioration and allowed for a happier outlook on life. These connections were found to be the best indicators of living a long, contented life.

4. It Reduces the Risk for Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million adults in the United States each year, and people with the condition are up to five times more likely to visit the doctor. Depression is also widespread, with nearly 250 million global cases annually.

One of the keys to protecting against these conditions - and the debilitating issues that often come with them - is a healthy dose of support, especially from family. Research indicates that social connection works by buffering the stress we all experience, which helps moderate depression through well-regulated hormone levels.

5. It Increases Resiliency

In a review of nearly 150 studies on the topic, strong social connections were linked to an average 50% increase in survival rates - regardless of the specific condition. People with cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurological disorders, kidney disease, and several other conditions all exhibited an elevated ability to manage their conditions more effectively when engaging socially.

This may in part be due to the fact that happy social ties help moderate unhealthy habits, such as drinking and smoking. They can also motivate us to take better care of ourselves by engaging in group wellness activities like exercise and nutrition classes.

6. It Helps Reduce the Risk for Chronic Disease

One up-and-coming field of research highlights how the length of our chromosome’s “end caps” – known as telomeres – is tied to the risk for chronic disease. Shorter telomeres are associated with an increased risk for conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and obesity because they reduce our cells' ability to divide and transfer information at optimal levels.

New findings highlight how social support may help lengthen these DNA segments and thus reduce the risk of chronic disease by up to eight times in older people. Just like with inflammation and immunity, this seems to work by triggering our body’s parasympathetic response, bringing it back to its natural, vibrant state of balance so that cell division is decreased, genetic malfunctions are lowered, and our cells stay healthier for longer.

To learn even more about the connections between social support and wellness, take a look at this video that showcases the ‘Blue Zone’ communities around the globe, where the world’s longest-living populations reside.

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