Social Relationships Reduce Our Risk

Patient Expert

Nurturing our social relationships is as important for our health as our physical activity, our weight, and the other well-known risk factors. For those of us who have diabetes, managing our blood sugar has to come first, but nothing else seems to matter as much as having a healthy social life.

Being socially isolated increases inflammation, hurting our immune system. It can be a factor leading to diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease. But when we surround ourselves with supportive friends, even managing our blood sugar is easier.

A massive research review that the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science published in March 2015 concluded your risk of premature death increased by 26 for reported loneliness, 29 percent for social isolation, and 32 percent for living alone. Data from 70 independent prospective studies that followed 3,407,134 people for an average of 7 years formed the basis of the review led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., of Brigham Young University’s Department of Psychology.

“Making Major Ripples”

The abstract of study, “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality,” is free online, and Holt-Lunstad sent me a copy of the full text. It greatly expands the 2010 meta-analytic review that she led, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk.”

Not until a couple of months ago did I discover Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s work, when I read an interview with another psychology professor, Barbara Fredrickson, that The Sun published last year and a friend brought to my attention. “Her paper on this is making major ripples all over the social sciences, because it suggests that we’re not targeting all the right behaviors when it comes to improving people’s health,” Dr. Fredrickson said. “We need to focus also on creating more positive social connections.”

But We’re More Isolated Than Ever

Instead, we are becoming more isolated than ever. A report published last year that the new research review cites states that “researchers have predicted that loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken.”

Already, more than half of American adults are single, and about one out of every seven adults live alone. Sociology Professor Eric Klinenberg’s popular 2012 book, Going Solo, hails its convenience and advantages, but as the new study points out, “physical health is not among them.”

Shocked into Action

When I read Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s new study, I was shocked to learn that living alone was so dangerous to my health. While I have many friends here and don’t feel lonely, I have lived alone for nine years in a two-bedroom apartment that I like a lot. The study helped me to decide that I really wanted to have someone share my apartment, and a week ago that happened.

The increasing social isolation of Americans is another trend that all of us need to avoid if we are going to manage our health.

See more of my articles about how to manage diabetes:

Belonging to Our Culture: Diabetes Support Groups

Diabetes Support in Korea

Beyond Diabetes