Social Connection and Health: Your Life Depends on It!


In the last column, I shared evidence supporting the effect of happiness and joy on health.  While researching that piece, I came across references to the importance of CONNECTION as a unique ‘variable’ of importance to health and mortality (i.e., death) risk.  I began an internet search on connection and health. Research has called this important health measure, Social Connectedness.

Turns out the data and amount written on this topic are extensive and compelling as well as not generally known or appreciated. 

Social connection is a fundamental human need, as essential to survival as food, water, and shelter. We are biologically wired for proximity to others and connection.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has several informative webpages on Social Connectedness. A link from that site led me to Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, an 83-page advisory from the US Surgeon General published this year.  A Surgeon General’s Advisory is a public statement that calls the American people’s attention to an urgent public health issue and provides recommendations on how it best be addressed, click here to read more.

What is Social Connectedness? (SC)

The CDC site defines SC as the degree to which people have and perceive they have the desired number, quality, and diversity of relationships that create a sense of belonging and being cared for, valued, and supported.  Social connectedness includes having meaningful and regular social exchanges, close bonds with others, and more than one person to turn to for support (this includes emotional and physical support and having access to help at short notice).

Experts describe three components of SC, each of which is important to overall connectedness and thus health. These are structure (quantity and type of relationships), function (what degree can you rely on those in your network), and quality (how positive, helpful, and satisfying are those relationships?). Each component adds to the health benefit. The stronger our social connectedness, the higher likelihood of better health outcomes; the weaker, the worse. Social connectedness is dynamic and ever-changing for a variety of reasons such as health, divorce, moving locations, or the death of a loved one.

The good news is that improving social connectedness is associated with better health.

The bad news is that half of all adults in the US feel socially disconnected with the largest demographic affected being young adults. 

In addition to the individual benefit of social connectedness,

Social Connectedness creates TRUST and resilience within Communities.

Over the past decades, Americans are increasingly less socially connected. This is causing a fraying of our social fabric and is showing up in ways in that trust in major institutions is at historic lows while societal polarization is at historic highs.  During the Covid 19 pandemic, we witnessed extreme polarization that affected public health, healthcare provider burnout, etc.  More people are living alone, single, and not having children than ever. Religious affiliation is at historic lows, with such affiliation being a known place many find all the components of social connectedness.

What’s all this got to do with health?

According to a 2010 meta-analysis on Social Relationships and Mortality Risk by Holt-Lunstad, Smith, and Layton, it’s got a lot to do with it! 

A meta-analysis is a research process that analyzes and reviews multiple studies (that is, published research papers) on a similar topic to summarize what is known about such a topic. This particular paper reviewed 148 studies on social connectedness.

Group of friends playing music and hanging out.
Group of friends playing music and hanging out.

The bottom-line finding was that an individual’s social relationships significantly predict mortality, i.e., death. 

  • Participants with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased chance of survival over those with the lowest connections.
  • Social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50%, heart disease by 29%, and stroke by 32%. The magnitude of these findings is considerable because they rival or are even more substantial than other well-established risk factors for death and illness.  
  • The level of social connectedness has a stronger effect on mortality risk than smoking <15 cigarettes a day, alcohol consumption of >6 drinks/day, adults skipping the yearly flu vaccine, lack of physical activity, obesity, and untreated hypertension. 50% of us are socially disconnected compared to 12.5% who smoke, 14.7% who have diabetes, and 42% who are obese; this is a hugely important finding.

This data is mind-blowing to me, and I hope it is to you. So many of us are worrying about our weight, lack of exercise, and diet. Far be it for me to suggest that those risk factors are unimportant, but the data suggest that social connectedness, or the lack thereof, has a more profound effect on your health than any of the behaviors we typically think of as risk factors.

How Exactly Does Social Connectedness Influence Health?

Scientifically it is being shown that SC influences biology, psychology, and behavior. The effects of stress on suppressing immune function and increasing one’s susceptibility to infection have been known for years, now demonstrated to be worsened by lower levels of social connectedness.  SC influences how we feel, which matters– see my last column on happiness and joy and their effect on health. Being socially connected also affects behavior. Yesterday I was witness to a beautiful example of social connectedness:  a group of young women playing volleyball together in a park. They were laughing, focused, and animated. They were exercising, having fun, getting outside their worries, and connecting!

A joy filled volleyball game in hilo hawaii.
A joy filled volleyball game in hilo hawaii.

THE GOOD NEWS: what you can do

I want to quote Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., M.P.H. 19th and 21st Surgeon General of the United States; Vice Admiral, United States Public Health Service in his introduction to the advisory discussed above:

“Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being. But we have the power to respond…. Each of us can start now, in our own lives, by strengthening our connections and relationships. Our relationships are an untapped resource – a source of healing in plain sight.”

Dr. Vivek mentions ways to strengthen the quality of social connections you have, focusing on making them meaningful, strong, and high quality:

  • Answer that phone call from a friend
  • Make time to share a meal
  • Listen without the distraction of your phone
  • Perform an act of service
  • Express yourself authentically

Some additional suggestions to establish and maintain social connections:

  • Devote time and attention to developing and maintaining relationships. Keep in regular contact.
  • Create a larger and more diverse social network, having more and different types of people in your life.
  • Join a social group to connect with others with shared interests, values, and goals that foster a sense of belonging.
  • Reach out and ask for help if you need it, even if the phone weighs a thousand pounds.
  • Address conflicts when they arise.
  • Talk to your doctor if you are lonely and feel socially isolated. It is, after all, at least as important to your health as your blood pressure, weight, and smoking status!

Locally we have the YMCA, one of the friendliest and most welcoming places I’ve found in my 11 years in Olympia. Kids learn to swim, seniors connect, and Olympians of all ages get together there to stay fit.  Rhett, my favorite yoga teacher at the Briggs Y has a habit of making connections with and connections between his students. He reminds us that it is important to him to include interpersonal connection as part of his classes, where we attend to connect first with our bodies and ourselves.

Our communities have robust Senior Centers, spiritual communities of all faiths, boating clubs, running groups, Meet Up gatherings galore, art classes, and more.  Volunteer for one of the many non-profits in our community.   (see Jolt columns by Mary Beth Harrington on non-profits, and stories on people and groups doing well, Shirley Stirling)

Try something new; get out of your house and connect with others – make new friends and keep up with the old. It is one of the best things you can do for your health (and happiness)!

To my readers, please comment on your favorite connecting resources in our communities of Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater… for the community’s health!

Debra L. Glasser, M.D., is a retired internal medicine physician in Olympia. Got a question for her? Write drdebra@theJOLTnews.com