New study shows social relationships boost your health
Meeting new people may have more benefits than increasing your number of Facebook “friends.”
A team at Concordia University’s psychology department has completed a study that proves—at least in the short term—that a lack of social interaction can have negative effects on your health.
The study, published in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine, proved that one’s perceived level of loneliness affects one’s health. Researchers measured the subjects’ heart rate variability (HRV), which, according to Concordia assistant psychology professor Jean-Philippe Gouin, is a marker of cardiac function determined by your autonomic nervous system.
“[HRV] is linked to how well the autonomic nervous system is working,” he explained. In layman’s terms? “It’s a good predictor of future health outcome,” he said.
“There’s a lot of data that shows that social relationships are important for health,” said Gouin. “However, in humans most of this data is correlational.” The ethical issue of studying social interaction lies in the fact that you can’t manipulate whether a person will have social relationships or not. Therefore, social interaction and good health may not necessarily be related, because not all the factors are controlled.
Gouin’s solution to the ethical dilemma of social isolation? International students. He and his team gathered 60 international students who had arrived in Montreal with no ties in the city. No family, no friends, no acquaintances. Not knowing a soul in Montreal. Sixty individuals who were, essentially, utterly alone in a new environment. The participants were also healthy individuals with no chronic illness or prescribed medications. They were recruited during mandatory information sessions for new international students.
Gouin’s study measured how lonely the subjects were through self-reported questionnaires. It seems strange that loneliness can be quantifiable, but essentially the level of loneliness was determined by how often they interacted with others (personal integration) and by the participants’ reporting of how lonely they felt. This is important because it means the level of loneliness truly is what is perceived by the participant.
“We also know that loneliness is impacted by individual characteristics,” said Gouin. “So some people might be surrounded by people but still feel lonely.”
He and his team then measured the HRV of participants and Gouin was actually surprised by his findings. “One thing that was interesting is that, contrary to what we expected, there was not much fluctuation over time in the level of loneliness,” said Gouin. “The effect was quite strong. So at baseline there was no relationship between social integration and HRV, like we would expect.”
Over time, however, (the study took place over six months and three visits) the relationship increased.
While Gouin would like to study the effects of loneliness on HRV in the longer term, for now the findings have proved interesting.
For instance, even if participants were making friends, the results of the study still showed that their HRV was lowering on average. And while Gouin cannot say why for certain, he does have his theories.
“I think that there are different options that we can make. One is that if you’re moving to a new country, your relationships may not be as close as in your home country or the last city that you were living. So maybe the quality, not just the quantity, of the friendships matter,” he said.
While the study was composed of international students, Gouin finds that the negative health effects of loneliness on HRV can apply to anyone. Someone going through a major life change like relocating to a new city for work, or anything that can break you off from your entire social network, can have the same effect.
So take care of the stable relationships in your life. They may help your health in the long run.