One of the crucial elements of living a long, healthy life may surprise you. I’m not talking about your diet. Or how often you see your doctor. Or the quality of your health insurance.
This often-overlooked factor that can improve your health is spending time with people who care about you. Researchers have found that people with strong social networks, and those who just spend time with lots of other people, are more likely to live longer. On the other hand, living an isolated life is a major factor that puts you at risk of dying sooner (joining other better-known health threats like smoking).
How could good relationships with other people keep you healthy? The experts are still puzzling over this. One thought is that being social might affect your body’s internal processes. Perhaps being around people who care about you affects your brain in a way that lowers the level of inflammatory chemicals in your body (inflammation plays a role in many health problems, from arthritis to heart disease).
Maybe other factors are at work, too. Showing up regularly for social engagements may:
- Encourage you to stay on top of health-maintenance tasks, from brushing your teeth before you head out to quitting smoking if no one else in your circle smokes.
- Show you good models of healthy living. Most of us have friends who are careful about what they eat or always eager to try a new exercise routine. Spending time around good role models can inspire us to follow their lead.
- Give you resources to call upon when you’re sick. Friends and family play a valuable role when we’re feeling bad, whether it’s from the flu or chemotherapy. They can take us to the doctor, pick up medicine from the store, or drop off food. Without this help, you may have more trouble recovering.
Given the importance of keeping an active social network, it’s worth asking yourself whether you have enough people you can count on. If you’re in an accident, who would show up at the hospital? How often do you eat at someone else’s home? How often do you participate in a hobby or activity with other people? Do you feel close to your extended family? How many people would you be comfortable asking for help if you were sick?
If your answers to these questions are “I don’t know,” “rarely,” “seldom,” “no,” and “few,” becoming more socially active and spending more time with friends and loved ones might make your life more interesting now … and longer later.
For even more tips on how to get better health and need the health care system less, check out: The New Prescription: How to Get the Best Health Care in a Broken System by Dr. Cynthia D. Haines, M.D. (Dr. Cindy Haines) and Eric Metcalf, M.P.H.