Healthy aging: Why relationships matter

Investing in meaningful relationships isn’t just a nice-to-have, according to new research, doing so could save your life. In a new study published in General Psychiatry, researchers found that satisfying relationships with friends, loved ones, and work colleagues are linked to a lower risk of developing multiple chronic diseases in older age—at least among women.

But the less satisfying the relationships were, the higher the risk of developing long-term conditions, according to the study. Influential factors, such as income, education, and health behaviors, only partially explained the findings.

As part of the study, researchers analyzed nearly 14,000 participants in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, an ongoing population-based study that looks at factors associated with the health and well-being of women across several age groups. 

The women in the current study were 45 to 50 years old in 1996, and their health and well-being were monitored every three years through a questionnaire up until 2016. The final analysis included almost 8,000 women, more than half of whom developed multiple long-term conditions during the 20 years of monitoring.

Those who developed these conditions were likely to “have lower educational attainment, find it difficult to live off their income, be overweight/obese, physically inactive, smokers, and to have had a surgically induced menopause,” according to the study. Women who reported lower satisfaction with their relationships were “more than twice as likely to accumulate multiple long-term conditions after fully adjusting for potentially influential factors.”

Other studies have found that out of more than 100 factors for depression, social connection was identified as the strongest protective factor. Loneliness and social isolation in older adults have also been linked to heart disease and an increased risk of dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“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,” researchers said in a press release about the study. 

Additionally, the researchers recommended that at the community level, “interventions focusing on social relationship satisfaction or quality may be particularly efficient in preventing the progression of chronic conditions,” and lastly, at the country and global levels, “social connections (e.g., social relationship satisfaction) should be considered a public health priority in chronic disease prevention and intervention.”

Further research is needed to determine whether specific effects of relationships, such as intimacy, quantity, and emotional and practical support, determine the accumulation of multiple long-term conditions. It’s also unknown whether the findings are applicable to men or other cultures.

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