In working to ensure good health, people often overlook a subtle, but extremely important, factor. That is, quite simply, other people.
Fortunately, most of us have ample opportunity to connect with people—spouses, partners, children, relatives, friends, colleagues. We know instinctively that connecting raises our spirits and fosters good feelings. From a medical standpoint, we now know without any doubt that human connection profoundly affects our physical health.
Meaning: Individuals who form close bonds with other people typically live longer than those without meaningful relationships. Sheldon Cohen, PhD, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is a prominent researcher in this area. Using the common cold as a marker of wellness, Dr. Cohen discovered in numerous studies that greater social connection results in more resistance to illness.
In one study, Dr. Cohen used a unique method of measuring social connection. He analyzed the autobiographies of 96 psychologists and 220 literary writers for words that indicated close relationships—”father,” “mother,” “brother,” “sister,” “neighbor” and the like. He found that the writers who lived longest had included more of these words in their life stories than had the writers who died younger.
In addition, the Australian Longitudinal Study on Aging, which included 1,500 people age 70 or older, discovered that those who had the most extensive network of friends and confidants lived an average of 22% longer than those who did not.
While good relationships can affect your health in positive ways, the opposite also is true. A 2007 study from University College London asked 9,011 men and women about their closest relationships. Participants who described the most negative interactions in those relationships were 34% more likely to develop heart disease, on average, than those who reported more positive interactions. Another project at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago discovered that lonely people were more likely to fall prey to Alzheimer’s disease.
In my own health-care practice, I frequently see striking examples of how social connection can have a big influence on patients’ health. People who tell me that they are lonely or in an unhappy marriage often have more health problems or more severe cases of conditions, including depression, anxiety, fatigue and even autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus and Crohn’s disease. Recently, a woman in her 50s came to my clinic. She had been suffering from serious depression for several years. She also is hearing impaired, and as her hearing deteriorated, she withdrew more and more. Today, she is disturbingly isolated. My prescription was for her to take steps to reconnect with her children, siblings and friends—people who understand and are willing to work around her hearing problem.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to witness how powerful a good relationship can be in restoring a person to good health. My patient, a man in his early 60s, was a high-powered real estate professional. He didn’t like to admit that anything in his life wasn’t going well, but as his physician, I was aware of his soaring blood pressure and fatigue that was becoming so pronounced that it interfered with his work. Finally, the man admitted that he had been terribly unhappy in his marriage for several years. I urged him to see a marriage counselor with his wife. Fortunately, they took my advice.
After about six months, the couple had made substantial progress. They were once again communicating with each other—and growing closer. And at about that time, treatments for the husband’s fatigue and blood pressure problems began to take effect. There is no question in my mind that these two developments were closely related.
When Relationships Get Rocky
Of course, we can’t simply “prescribe” good relationships for ourselves. Human beings by nature have varying opinions, tastes and desires—and so some disagreement is always part of dealing with other people. That is not the issue, however, when it comes to health. The issue is how you go about disagreeing.
In a 10-year study of 4,000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, 32% of men and 23% of women reported that they habitually bottled up their feelings during spats with their spouses. Keeping quiet didn’t seem to upset the men, but for women, the study’s finding about this so-called “self-silencing” was astonishing. During the study, wives who habitually suppressed their feelings and held their tongues during arguments were four times more likely to die than were the women who spoke up.
Advice for Good Relationships and Better Health
To get insight about the attitudes and actions that improve close relationships, our editors spoke to Alexa Elkington, MS, a marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas who leads workshops to help people communicate better. Here are the key points that she says help strengthen the quality of our interactions—thus contributing to health and happiness…
- Accept differences. Instead of trying to change others, recognize and accept that they are who they are—full of strong points and weak points, lovable qualities and some that aren’t so lovable…in other words, completely human.
- Think positive. You can decide to view other people’s annoying small habits as big negatives…as neutral behavior…or even as charming quirks. For example, grown children visiting your home are apt to leave a dish or two in the sink, just as they did as kids. You can get fired up about it or smile at their consistency.
- Appreciate. Remember to say thank you even for small actions—including chores that the other person is “supposed” to do. Gratitude cheers the heart and increases warm feelings.
- Be understanding. Recognize and respect that your style of handling conflict may be different from the other person’s. Those who easily speak up find it hard to understand someone who stays quiet, for instance. But it is important to accept the difference… and for “self-silencers” to protect their health by learning to speak up.