Group of friends in art class have healthy social connectionsIf you’ve ever been to the doctor, you’ve probably heard about how important it is to eat right, get some exercise, and stop smoking. That’s because these lifestyle factors have been shown to have a direct impact on health. New research is starting to clarify the role of another lifestyle factor – healthy social connections.

Much of the research on this topic is being conducted by Dr. Joel Salinas, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. He looks at social engagement and its effect on health outcomes, and his research is yielding pretty good evidence that our social lives really make a difference to our health. Before we look at these effects, let’s define what we mean when we talk about social relationships. 

In his research, Salinas considers three aspects of our social lives: connection, support, and perception of loneliness.

Connection is the network of people in your life – everyone you come into contact with from your spouse or child to your favorite barista at the coffee house. If your network is small, that’s a warning sign that the connection aspect is lacking and may have anegative impact on your health.

Support is the access you have to emotional support, affection, listeners, and even help with chores or difficult tasks. This is a broad category, so it stands to reason that the impact of strong or weak support can be varied.

Finally, the feeling that connection and support are unavailable plays an important role in our social well-being. This perception of loneliness is the key here, not the actual availability of connection and support. When it comes to the impact of social life on our health, perception is almost the same as reality.

These factors play a real and significant role in health. We know that those who have limited connection and support have increased risks of cognitive decline like we see in dementia, stroke, and even death. But what can you do to improve this aspect of your lifestyle to reduce the risks associated with social isolation?

First, just take an audit of our circumstances. Do you interact with other people regularly on a typical day? Do you see people regularly that you can confide in or call on for help when you need it? Do you live alone or with other family members or roommates? Do you feel lonely?

If you find this overview of your social network lacking, think about steps you can take to build healthy social connections.

  • What are your hobbies? Can you join a group with similar interests? A local church or community center? Even an online resource like Meetup can help you get connected in new ways.
  • Do you typically exercise alone (or not at all)? Find an exercise class to participate in.
  • Have you considered volunteering? This is a great way to work for a cause that matters to you and to find like-minded connections while doing so.

For some people it might not be so easy. For example, social anxiety may prevent you from pursuing these outlets. Your physician can help you find resources to manage these sorts of concerns to make it easier to get out and connect.

So, as you think about living a healthy lifestyle, eat right, exercise, and do what you can to stop smoking. But don’t forget to invest a little time in building or maintaining your social relationships. You will be doing yourself – and your friends – a healthy favor.