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Young People’s Social Ties Good for Their Health

Posted by Lynn Bronikowski

The next time your teenager hangs out at the mall with her friends or helps out at a homeless shelter, it could be good for her health.

That’s the findings of a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study that found the more social ties people have at an early age, the better their health and chances of avoiding serious health issues such as stroke.

“Friends are important and so are family, school activities and community involvement,” said Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center (CPC). “How involved you are in the community also helps.”

The study is the first to definitively link social relationships with concrete measures of physical wellbeing such as abdominal obesity, inflammation, and high blood pressure, all of which can lead to long-term health problems, including stroke, heart disease and cancer.


“Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active,” said Harris.

Harris said having more social connections can mean lower hypertension which is a risk factor for stroke.

“Social connections tend to buffer the daily stresses in their lives so the more people you have to share bad news or listen to you, the lower your hypertension,” said Harris.

The study, based on 15,000 participants from across the country, builds on previous research that shows that aging adults live longer if they have more social connections.

The researchers found that the sheer size of a person’s social network was important for health in early and late adulthood.

“In adolescence, social isolation can be just as unhealthy as physical inactivity,” said Harris. “So, having social relationships is just as important as exercising.”

The study found that in adolescence social integration protected against abdominal obesity, for example, which is a risk factor for stroke. In old age, social isolation was actually more harmful to health than diabetes.

In middle adulthood, it wasn’t the number of social connections that mattered, but what those connections provided in terms of social support or strain.

“The relationship between health and the degree to which people are integrated in large social networks is strongest at the beginning and at the end of life, and not so important in middle adulthood, when the quality, not the quantity, of social relationships matters,” Harris said.

Harris said the study makes it clear that doctors and other healthcare professionals should pay attention to social relationships when caring for their patients.

“Doctors often don’t pay attention to social relationships,” said Harris.  “We want to get the message out that doctors should ask, ‘What do you do in the spare time?’”