3 Underrated Ways Social Interactions Affect Your Longevity, From A Science Journalist
We've long known that maintaining quality relationships can support mental health—and it turns out, social interactions can affect physical well-being too.
According to science journalist Marta Zaraska, author of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, connecting with others can actually affect your longevity. As she shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, "Something called social integration—having a romantic partner, having friends, or being connected to your community—can lower your mortality risk1."
So, how does your social network affect your longevity in the long run? Here, Zaraska outlines three reasons:
Relationships can strengthen your immune system.
"Connecting with others can really boost the immune system," she notes. For example, she cites a study on 184 elderly people that showed happily married individuals have a better vaccine response2. "Meaning, if they get vaccinated against the flu, they're much more likely to have a better immune response to it than people who are lonely," Zaraska says.
The same goes for the opposite scenario: According to Zaraska, loneliness can make you more prone to illness. According to another study, lonely first-year college students had a weaker immune response to the flu shot3. "Loneliness [can be] really bad when you are trying to avoid viruses," Zaraska notes. Of course, there are other factors at play—just because you might be feeling lonely doesn't mean your immune system is doomed—but it does show that a chronic sense of loneliness can affect immunity in some way.
Your social network influences your gut microbiome.
Did you know you actually exchange gut microbes with others? It's true: According to Zaraska, you share microbes with those you interact with4—even family pets5! Social contact can actually diversify your microbiome, and, as you may know by now, a diverse microbiome is a healthier microbiome—which also goes hand-in-hand with immunity. Of course, much more research is needed before we can say for sure, but it does seem promising.
Commitment can give you health benefits.
According to Zaraska, married couples (or those who simply live together) actually synchronize their bodies. "They actually synchronize their heart rate, their pulse, even their finger temperature, the electric conductivity in their chest. It's mind-boggling how physiological these connections are between your mind, your relationships, and how your body functions."
The thing is, says Zaraska, cohabitation won't offer as many health benefits if you aren't in a committed relationship. What does this mean? Well, it's not necessarily about the cohabitation itself—it's about the relationship. "If the commitment is not there, then unfortunately the health benefits are not as powerful," she says. That's because a committed relationship provides a feeling of safety. "Your HPA [hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal] axis can really calm down because this person is there for you for better or for worse. No matter what happens to you, this person will be there."
How to connect with others right now.
We'd be remiss not to mention that it might be difficult to connect with others right now, in an unprecedented time of social distancing. Although, that's not to say you can't reap any of the longevity-supporting benefits. As Zaraska says, "We can still connect the best we can." For example, you can lean on those you live with—like a partner, family members, and roommates—and boost those relationships. "Make sure to have quality connections," she suggests.
Zaraska also notes that acts of kindness (dubbed the "Mother Teresa effect"6) can actually boost your antiviral response, similar to the immune-strengthening scenario we mentioned above. "You can also do a lot of small acts of kindness, which can be very powerful," she says. "Just things like leaving a sticky note on your neighbor's door with a smiley face on it. That's a small act of kindness, and it still works."
Connecting with others can have powerful, tangible benefits for your health. Take it from Zaraska: Social interactions—no matter how big or small—can affect your immunity, gut microbiome, mental health, and so much more.