Future chronic diseases like cardiovascular and brain conditions can be predicted by this common factor that is often not fully recognized.
Several studies have shown that lack of social interaction is linked to a higher chance of dying young from any cause.
Higher levels of inflammatory markers are also linked to isolation and loneliness, and people who were less socially attached were more likely to exhibit the physical signs of chronic stress.
According to research published in the open-access journal General Psychiatry, women who have satisfying relationships with partners, friends, or coworkers in midlife are less likely to develop multiple long-term conditions as they get older.
The risk was higher the less satisfying these relationships were. The study shows that important factors like income, education, and health behaviors can only partly explain the results.
A growing body of data suggests a correlation between strong social networks and excellent health/wellbeing in old age, but it’s unclear if these connections may reduce the risk of several long-term diseases (multimorbidity), which many older people encounter.
The researchers analyzed data from 13,714 participants of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) in order to determine the extent to which a woman’s level of satisfaction with her relationships—partner, family, friends, work colleagues, and other social connections—might influence this risk.
The ALSWH is a continuing population-based research that examines aspects of the health and happiness of women in 1996 who were between the ages of 18 and 23, 45 and 50, and 70 and 75.
In 1996, all of the women in this study were between 45 and 50 years old. Using questionnaires, their health and happiness were monitored about every three years until 2016.
Using a 4-point scale, they were asked to rate their levels of satisfaction with each of the five types of relationships in their lives. Each answer was given a maximum score of 3 points.
Additionally, they were asked if they had ever experienced any of the following: depression, anxiety, osteoporosis, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, COPD, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, arthritis, or any of the following diseases: cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, or high blood pressure.
Multiple conditions were defined as having two or more of these from a starting point of none, or more than two of these from a starting point of two or more (multimorbidity).
Factors such as nationality, marital standing, geographic location, educational level, financial stability, body mass index, level of physical activity, alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and menopausal status were recorded.
Throughout 20 years, 58% (4484) of 7694 women had various long-term illnesses.
Individuals who did so were more likely to have a lower level of education, have trouble making ends meet, be overweight or obese, lack regular exercise, smoke cigarettes, and have had medically-induced menopause.
Overall, higher levels of relationship satisfaction were linked to decreased odds of developing many chronic illnesses over time.
When controlling for all possible confounders, women who reported the lowest levels of satisfaction (score of 5 or less) were almost twice as likely to develop multiple long-term conditions compared with those who reported the greatest levels of happiness (score of 15).
Researchers say that the strength of the link was similar to that of well-known risk factors like being overweight or obese, not being physically active, smoking, and drinking alcohol.
When all 5 kinds of relationships were added to the analysis, the link got weaker, but it was still significant for all of them except for friendships. Separate analyses of the various situations yielded the same general findings.
Together, well-known risk factors like socioeconomic status, health behaviors, and whether or not a woman is menopausal explained less than one-fifth of the observed link.
This observational research cannot prove causality. Moreover, since it was based on personal recollection, it failed to record details on early-adult social ties. The researchers also note that since the study only involved Australian women, the results may not apply to males or people from other cultures.
But they conclude:
“Our findings have significant implications for chronic disease management and intervention. First, at the individual level, these implications may help counsel women regarding the benefits of starting or maintaining high quality and diverse social relationships throughout middle to early old age.
“Second, at the community level, interventions focusing on social relationship satisfaction or quality may be particularly efficient in preventing the progression of chronic conditions.
“Third, at the country and global levels, social connections (eg, social relationship satisfaction) should be considered a public health priority in chronic disease prevention and intervention.”
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