It’s easier than ever to make new friends, keep up with old ones, and keep in touch with far-flung family members, but scientists say the internet is no substitution to quality face-to-face time with loved ones.
In fact, not meeting with friends and family on a regular basis is linked to a shorter life.
Good social lives “lead to increased cognitive stimulation and activity, which are linked to healthy ageing,” according to Thomas Perls said, the lead scientist in the New England Centenarian Study ;and the designer of the Living to 100 life expectancy calculator.
A 2010 study published in PLOS Medicine analysed 148 studies on social lives and longevity and found that a robust social life is correlated with longer life expectancies and better health. In fact, “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships.”
Good social interactions can also reduce stress and depression. Loved ones can help people through stressful events like illness or rough life transitions. Psychological stress caused by tough times has been associated with a higher risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and can lower the body’s ability to control inflammation and fight illness.
In fact, the older people get, the more social networks matter. According to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, socially isolated elderly are “at increased risk for the development of cardiovascular disease, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration, and mortality.” The study followed 6,500 British people aged 52 and over from 2004 to 2012.
But it’s also in the later years of life when making friends or maintaining a good social life becomes difficult as “decreasing economic resources, mobility impairment, and the death of contemporaries conspire to limit social contacts,” the study says. Falls can be dangerous for the elderly already, but they can turn fatal if no one is around to help, Perls said.
“It’s also important for people who are older to establish and frequent social networks in the event they need somebody,” Perls added.
The PLOS study found that strong social support networks are “linked to better health practices.” For example, it’s easier to pick up and keep healthy habits, like playing sports or eating well, with others rather than alone. But bad habits could spread just as easily.
According to Gallup’s 2013 Consumption Habits Survey,Americans tend to associate with people who share their health habits.
The phone survey found that those “who smoke or drink are much more likely than those who abstain to have close friends and family who share the habit,” the survey said.
A 2010 Annals of Internal Medicine study shows that this holds true for drinking, too. According to US News, “people whose friends or relatives drank heavily were 50% more likely to also drink heavily compared to people who weren’t connected with heavy drinkers.”
It’s unclear from the Gallup survey whether people pick up these bad habits from their social networks, or if they just naturally gravitate others to those who share their habits. Still, the survey warns that “Americans would be wise to be mindful of the health habits of their social circle.”
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