A new study published in BMC Medicine suggests that the quality of social connections has a greater impact on longevity than living alone or with others.
Researchers found that frequent visits from friends and family can reduce the risk of early death, even for those not living alone. The findings highlight the need for meaningful social bonds to support health.
- People visited daily by friends/family had a 39% lower risk of dying during the study period compared to those never visited.
- Those living with others but never visited had a 25% higher mortality risk than if getting daily visits.
- Monthly visits appeared sufficient to gain benefits, with similar risk reductions as weekly/daily visits.
- All social connections assessed (loneliness, confiding in others, visits, group activities) impacted longevity.
- But frequency of visits from loved ones had the greatest influence on risk of early death.
The study was conducted by a team at the University of Glasgow, UK led by Dr. Hamish Foster. It involved over 450,000 UK adults aged 38-73 years who completed a questionnaire on social connections in 2006-2010. Participants were asked about loneliness, close confidants, visits from friends/family, group activities, and living alone.
Researchers then tracked mortality outcomes through 2021. After adjusting for demographics and health factors, they analyzed associations between social ties and survival over the follow-up period.
Overall, around 55% of participants were women and 96% were white. The study relied on self-reported social connections and was observational, so can’t prove causation. But it involved a large general population sample with 11 years median follow-up.
Dr. Foster said the findings suggest relationship quality, not just quantity, impacts health. Negative relationships could be harmful even when cohabiting. But frequent visits from loved ones appear highly beneficial.
Previous studies definitively linked social isolation and loneliness to higher mortality risks. But how different social ties influence longevity was less clear.
Researchers said visits from friends/family may improve health through:
- Reduced stress and improved mood from meaningful bonds.
- Encouragement of healthy behaviors like exercise.
- Practical support like rides to appointments.
- Increased likelihood to seek medical care when needed.
Living alone wasn’t itself harmful if receiving regular visits. What mattered most was having high-quality relationships and feeling cared for.
The results highlight the need to foster social connections that provide meaning, purpose, and emotional support. Dr. Foster said just monthly visits appear to provide benefits, so even less frequent but regular contact with loved ones can aid health.
For those isolated due to limited mobility or living far from relatives, virtual visits via phone/video call may also help. But in-person interactions seem ideal when possible.
As people age, maintaining social ties can become harder if friends move away or die. But the findings suggest nurturing high-quality relationships throughout life could have protective effects.
Community programs facilitating social bonds for seniors, like friendly visitor initiatives, may thus provide health benefits too. But one-off interventions aren’t likely as effective as cultivating meaningful relationships over time.
Future studies should further investigate how visit frequency, relationship quality, living situation and other factors interact. Research on interventions to reduce isolation’s health impacts is also needed.
This large UK study highlights the importance of meaningful social connections for longevity. Frequent visits from loved ones, even monthly, can substantially reduce risks of early death. But living with others while never visited raises mortality risks.
Quality relationships that provide companionship and support are key for health. As people age, purposeful efforts to retain social ties could yield longevity benefits. Community programs facilitating meaningful bonds for socially isolated groups may also improve wellbeing.
The findings add to evidence on the health hazards of loneliness and isolation. Maintaining strong social connections should be a lifelong priority, not just in older age. Relationships giving a sense of purpose and belonging seem to nurture resilience. So caring outreach to more isolated individuals could literally help save lives.