Science 101

Does Being in a Relationship Boost Your Longevity?

Love can warm your heart and, according to science, it might also keep it ticking for longer.

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Eating a balanced diet, staying active, avoiding tobacco, and getting adequate sleep are staples on the list of good habits proven to be beneficial to your long-term health. But numerous studies suggest that another less obvious factor may play a critical role in health and longevity: your relationships with other people. Here’s a look at some of the most convincing research on the topic and what it means for you.

The Protective Perks of Healthy Friendships

First of all, if you haven’t found “the one,” don’t panic. While many studies have compared the health of married people to singles, there’s just as much evidence suggesting that being surrounded by a circle of supportive friends and family members influences your health for the better.

Maintaining social connections — whether through friendships or positive interactions with neighbors or relatives — improves your odds of survival by 50 percent.

One meta-analysis of 148 studies involving more than 308,000 participants across all ages determined that maintaining social connections — whether through friendships or positive interactions with neighbors or relatives —  improves your odds of survival by 50 percent. The authors concluded that “the magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity).” The study also identified living alone, being unmarried, no participation in social groups, fewer friends, and strained relationships as risk factors for premature mortality.

Why a Social Life Could Be Key to Your Survival

There’s wide-ranging evidence to suggest that strong social bonds, like a soccer team that meets every Saturday or a monthly knitting club, might benefit your health by reducing the damaging effects of stress. People who are chronically lacking in social contacts are more likely to experience elevated levels of cortisol, which reflect levels of stress and inflammation.

“When people are under stress, their blood pressure increases,” says Bert N. Uchino, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology and health psychology at the University of Utah. His research focuses on examining how social relationships influence long-term health outcomes. “Your immune system gets activated in the short-term, and in the long-term it gets dysregulated. Inflammation starts to take over in the body. Over the long-term, that can lead to bad health outcomes.”

Those bad outcomes encompass any number of mental and physical health conditions from depression and cognitive decline to gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, heart disease, chronic pain, and even the common cold.

Relationship Figures

The Case for Marriage

Romantic relationships, meanwhile, have their own powerful impact. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that married men were more likely than single men to keep regular doctor’s appointments, which in the long run can result in fewer or early detection of health issues. Findings from the longitudinal Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies on adult health, recently found that committed relationships, marriage in particular, affect longevity for the better. Participants who reported higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships — measured by the extent to which they agree or disagree with their partner, how they handle disagreements, and how happy they are overall with their relationship — showed higher rates of protection from chronic disease, mental illness, and cognitive decline. In fact, in terms of predictors of long-term health, the study showed that a blissful relationship was right up there with physical activity and the absence of alcohol abuse and smoking.

Preliminary findings from research in 2017 on over 25,000 patients with a heart attack diagnosis found that married people were 14 percent less likely to die after a heart attack than single people. While it wasn’t clear from the study why married patients were more likely to survive, the researchers point out the importance of physical and emotional support following a major health event.

It’s probably not all that surprising that simply being married or in a relationship isn’t enough to secure infinite good health; the quality of the relationship is what matters most. In 2018,  a nine-year study from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealed that couples who perceived their relationships to be more emotionally supportive relationships — measured by their responses to questions like “How much does your spouse or partner really care about you?” — were less likely than couples in more strained relationships — measured by their responses to questions like “How often does your spouse or partner make too many demands on you?” — to gain weight and become obese in middle age.

At the same time, frequent conflict and lack of support in a relationship can have detrimental effects on a couple’s health. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at the University of Utah found that married couples in “ambivalent,” or rocky, relationships were at a higher risk for coronary artery calcification (CAC) levels, a precursor for heart disease. “We found that the levels of calcification were highest if both you and your partner showed ambivalence toward each other,” said Uchino, the study’s co-author. Uchino’s research has also shown that a higher number of ambivalent ties in your social networks is associated with shorter telomere lengths. Telomeres are the caps on the ends of our chromosomes that protect them from damage and are an indicator of aging at the cellular level. Shorter telomeres are associated with higher incidences of disease and mortality.

According to Uchino, ambivalent relationships involve coexisting positive and negative feelings about a partner, and are marked by frequent conflict, lack of support, and even distrust. “All the benefits of having someone who’s really supportive and always there for you are not realized in ambivalent relationships,” said Uchino.

Apply the Research to Your Love Life

Whether you’re single, attached, or somewhere in the middle, there’s plenty of evidence pointing to the importance of nurturing your nearest and dearest relationships in the name of long-term health. “We often don’t make the time to prioritize the time we spend with people who are really important and almost unconditionally positive towards us,” said Uchino. “We need to prioritize relationships on the level that we do other activities for the good of our health, like exercise and diet, because it’s equally important.”

In other words, plan a romantic weekend with your partner. Grab dinner with an old friend or coffee with a supportive office mate. Add a plus one to your next pilates class. And don’t forget to call your mother — research shows it might have the same stress-reducing effects as a hug.

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