Did you know that good relationships are good for your health?
The US National Longitudinal Mortality Study (NLMS) involving 281,460 men and women over 45 years of age it found that marriage was associated with a much lower risk of mortality than being single. Similarly, the British Regional Heart Study of 1995, that involved 7,735 men aged 40-59, found that being single was associated with a higher risk of mortality. However, it is not marriage itself that offers the health benefits. It is the quality of relationship within the marriage that counts. A happy marriage translates to a happy heart.
For instance, a 1986 study found that an unhappy marriage was associated with a 25-fold increase in major depression. But a happy marriage hugely improves the survival chances following congestive heart failure, as another study of 139 men and 50 women found. Many other studies show that good quality relationships can even trump some of the damaging effects of a poor diet and low physical activity levels and offer considerable protection from heart disease. A 2004 study even found that a stable partnership was associated with a slower rate of progression of HIV to AIDS.
Why does this work? There are a number of factors at play. One is that good relationships make us happy and this keeps the scourge of chronic stress at bay. Secondly, poor quality relationships, where our tempers can be inflamed, actually create inflammation inside the body. As it builds up it begins to cause collateral damage to the body’s systems, playing a key role in heart disease and many types of cancer. Good quality relationships probably keep inflammation at much lower, healthier levels. Third, good relationships also produce more of the hormone, oxytocin, in the brain and body. Oxytocin is well known as the hormone associated with childbirth but exciting new research has now revealed that it protects the cardiovascular system from damage, particularly from inflammation and the build up of free radicals. Some evidence even points towards a role in keep breast cancer away.
So it makes a lot of health sense to have good relationships. This does not mean that we need to be married or in a romantic relationship to enjoy the benefits. Relationships with family and friends count. Dissecting the data of many of theses studies reveals that it is the sense of connection and support offered and received that are the key predictors of good health.
Helping anyone in need produces these effects. Do you know of someone suffering right now whom you could help? Maybe only a few words of comfort are needed, or a gentle hand on their shoulder showing that you are here if they need you, or even a hug, or even a phone call to let someone know that they are not alone.
If you don’t have a network of family and friends then go out and join a club or volunteer your time at a charity, or even enroll on a college course in the evenings. These are sure-fire ways of creating more connections in your life, which ultimately are good for your health. We have placed so much importance on good health coming from diet and exercise but evidence is now showing that we must add relationships with each other to the health equation.
Copyright 2021 David R. Hamilton PhD.