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Exploring Life Attachments Part 1: How Social Connections Affect Your Health

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This five-part series will review five common personal attachments many adults consider lifelines. Your social connections, job, technology usage, hobbies and pets affect not only your happiness, but can impact your health positively and negatively. Learn to reduce harmful effects and encourage beneficial results to maximize your wellness. While balancing valued friendships with other life attachments, maintain your diet, exercise and medication regimens.

What Friends Are for

Same-sex friendships offer many positive social, emotional and physical benefits for men and women of all ethnic groups and socioeconomic levels. Men tend to participate in more activity-based groups while women focus more on sharing their feelings one on one. For both, friendship quality is more important than quantity. Adults who have one or more close friends enjoy better health than those with only casual acquaintances or no friends at all. Confiding in a close friend helps reduce the strain of daily annoyances and frustrations. Close personal relationships can help you adjust to major life changes such as births, deaths, marriages, divorces, unemployment, new jobs, moving to new residences and retirement. Because of these upheavals, friendship becomes more important as we age. In a study of 60- to 64-year-olds, approximately two-thirds of men, but just 16 percent of widows, reported not having a close friend. A nationwide study found that 91 percent of socially active people over 65 see their friends almost every day.

How Friendship Improves Health and Well-Being

Researchers report people who interact with close friends daily eat and sleep better, are more likely to take prescribed medications, benefit from friendly reminders to see doctors for checkups and take good care of their health. Strong platonic relationships strengthen your body’s autoimmune system to resist disease, lower depression and increase pain tolerance. Studies indicate that positive social connections may accelerate disease recovery. Brigham Young University psychologists found study participants with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive major illnesses than those with weaker ones.

How Loneliness Makes You Sick

Adult loneliness has doubled in 30 years. Two recent surveys reported 40 percent of adults are lonely, which is up from 20 percent in the 1980s. Most research indicates that feeling disconnected is more dangerous than being isolated. A study showed that 62.5 percent of at-risk lonely people were married or living with others. Multiple studies have correlated weak social ties and loneliness with increased diseases, shorter life expectancies and higher death rates. A study of stressed women showed those without a close confidant were 10 times more likely to become depressed. Casual friendships provide little relief. An Ohio State University study of 200 breast cancer survivors found lonelier women experienced more fatigue, pain and depression than those with stronger support systems. Insufficient social connections can equal the risk of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Studies have reported that chronic loneliness over time is associated with sleep difficulties, high blood pressure, cognitive decline and dementia. Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Data on 2,100 adults age 50 and up found feelings of loneliness were associated with increased mortality over a six-year period. This risk level is comparable to smoking and twice as high as obesity. According to one study, loneliness is a risk factor for early death in adults over age 60. Other social isolation studies of elderly people concluded people without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.

Why You Should Ditch Your Toxic Relationships

According to a new UCLA study, toxic friends are bad for your health. Researchers reviewed 122 healthy adults’ social interaction diaries. Those with negative social experiences had higher levels of inflammatory proteins that can lead to depression, heart disease and cancer. Competitive friends who one-up you repeatedly elicit high levels of inflammatory proteins. Friends who constantly bicker with you can increase your cortisol stress hormone, so it quits suppressing inflammatory processes and inhibiting pro-inflammatory protein production. Inconsiderate and undependable friends who cancel at the last minute, stand you up and fail to repay money they borrowed create unhealthy stress. A 12-year study of 10,000 participants in negative close friendships showed they were more likely to develop or die from heart problems than those with positive close relationships.

How to Minimize Health Risks

Distance yourself from unhealthy negative relationships and forge positive new ones. Chronically lonely people may have trouble making friends2friends because of how they view other people. Instead of looking for signs of acceptance, they’re on alert for rejection signals. If you come off as standoffish or resentful, others are more likely to ignore you; thus, loneliness feeds itself. Make a fresh start with a positive, welcoming attitude. Join a civic group, social club, volunteer organization or church where you’re likely to have something in common with fellow members. The right friendship quantity is whatever makes you feel part of something greater than yourself. Depending on your personality, you may be content with one or two close, reliable friends or need a larger community. Remember that friendship is reciprocal, so suggest get-togethers, listen to others’ concerns, offer emotional support and be a hands-on friend in times of need. Focusing on others instead of your loneliness can elevate your mood, increase your happiness and boost your wellness.

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