How many times have you heard the expression that if you have one or two good friends in a lifetime, you are fortunate indeed? Or do you remember Barbra Streisand's big hit years ago called "People"? The lyrics extolled the virtues of people needing other people and just how lucky they are. Now there's some very impressive evidence that individuals who have a wide variety of friends and acquaintances are probably healthier than those who don't. This came to light in a study in the June 25 Journal of the American Medical Association. A summary of the study's findings appeared recently in a story by the New York Times News Service.
The focus of the study was the common cold. Everybody catches a cold now and then, of course, but unfortunately some people get more than their fair share, and it's no fun at all. The study included 276 healthy adults ages 18 to 55. The researchers found that people with the most wide-ranging network of social relationships were the least susceptible to colds. The incidence of colds among those in the study was 35% among people with six or more types of relationships, 43% among those with four or five types and close to 62% among those with three or fewer. The study used 12 categories of relationships, including spouses and family, work-oriented groups, neighbors, and religious, social and volunteer ties.
Sheldon Cohen, a psychiatry professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was the lead author of the study. Back in 1991 Cohen published research showing a connection between stress and colds. In the new study, the lack of diverse social contacts was the strongest of the risk factors for colds that were examined. Also among the variables were smoking, low vitamin C intake, alcohol consumption and stress. While stress can compromise the immune system, a diverse social network can help counter stressful situations. As the story said: "Someone who has a family as well as friends and acquaintances outside of work is likely to weather job-related stress more easily than someone who cannot escape the pressure by spending time with family and friends."
Redford Williams, director of the behavioral medicine research center at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C., lauded the new findings: "If you don't believe that lack of social support can cause you to get sick, here's an experimental study that ought to convince anybody." Williams has conducted research that found heart disease patients with few social ties are six times as likely to die within six months as those with many relatives and friends.
The cold study received further support from another prominent researcher who had previously reported that a person's immune system response to vaccines increases with the strength of his or her social support. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of health psychology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, conducted that study along with her husband, Ronald Glaser, a virologist at Ohio State. Kiecolt-Glaser said the study led by Cohen is "a nice piece of work because it directly links an illness outcome with personal relationships."
So there's plenty of evidence that having a strong social network can really boost one's health. For instance, if you're under a lot of stress at work, it would seem the therapy of diverse relationships outside the office is just what any doctor would recommend. But remember, if you want to have a friend, you have to start by being one yourself.
Don't be shy,
Charles S. Lauer