The social factor that could be as bad for your health as smoking

Dr Zoe on correlation between health and 'satisfying relationships'

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Whether you have a great, supportive partner or a best friend who’s always there to listen, social relationships play a key role in not just your mental but also physical health. In fact, new research found that poor relationships can be as bad for your risk of conditions, like diabetes, stroke, and cancer, as smoking.

Speaking on ITV’s This Morning, Dr Zoe Williams said: “When we talk about lifestyle medicine, we often talk about five of the six pillars.

“We talk about physical activity, nutrition, sleep and stress, and substances, but we often forget to talk about relationships.”

While all of these things are crucial to consider, relationships can be just as “important”.

Don’t take just the doctor’s word for it, as new research, published by the British Medical Journal, also backs this claim.

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The research team found that having poor relationships with partners, family, friends and even work colleagues can be as bad for your health as smoking, alcohol, and obesity.

The worse these relationships are in your 40s and 50s, the greater the risk of having several illnesses, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, osteoporosis, arthritis, cancer, depression and anxiety, later in life.

Dr Zoe said: “What they found is that those who have satisfying relationships are at a lower risk of actually getting these types of diseases.”

Looking at data from almost 8,000 women in Australia, who were aged 45 to 50 and free from these conditions when the study began, the researchers collected data about satisfaction levels in social relationships with partners, family members, friends and work colleagues.

Tracking this data for over a period of two decades, the team then looked at who went on to develop the serious health problems.

The findings showed that more than half of these women sadly got more than one of the conditions.

Worryingly, those who reported the lowest level of satisfaction with their social relationships had double the risk of developing conditions like cancer and diabetes. 

The study suggested that having poor relationships was “comparable” to risk factors like obesity, physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol intake.

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While the research included only Australian women, which means the results might not apply to men or other cultures, the findings have “significant implications” for health, according to the study.

The researchers from the University of Queensland said the results highlight “the benefits of starting or maintaining high quality and diverse social relationships throughout middle to early old age”.

They continued: “Second, at the community level, interventions focusing on social relationship satisfaction or quality may be particularly efficient in preventing the progression of chronic conditions.

“Third, at the country and global levels, social connections should be considered a public health priority in chronic disease prevention and intervention.”

Furthermore, a certain type of a relationship didn’t score higher than another, meaning you could reap the benefits no matter if you form a partnership or a friendship.

The study results suggested that all social bonds are important when it comes to later-life health.

However, the researchers also shared that a “key limitation” of their findings comes down to the chronic conditions being self-reported, plus the study cohort only included women.

“Given that previous studies have suggested that the effects of social relationships on health-related outcomes are different for men and women, further large population-based studies are warranted to investigate the role of social relationships in the accumulation of multimorbidities,” the team added.

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