A healthy social support network is essential for the health of all people, and especially for those of us living with chronic illness. It provides a sense that we can trust and count on other people for friendship, emotional and problem-solving support, help with tasks, and physical or material assistance. An essential element of healthy social support is mutuality. We strengthen our sense of mastery when we can offer support to others and also feel comfortable asking for it. Researcher Dr. David Sobel points out that humans are meant to be in community, and the degree of community we experience directly correlates to the degree of health we experience.
Around the world and in all cultures, the healthiest people belong to some kind of community, have close friends, and often feel connected with the whole of humanity. In fact, all forms of chronic and life-threatening health challenges are more prevalent where there is the least social support. In parts of the world where multigenerational families remain together and people live in closed communities in which everyone is known and valued, disease rates of all types are dramatically lower than in countries like the US, where a large segment of the population lives alone and in relative isolation. (Living alone can be perfectly healthy, however, if you have a close circle of friends or family nearby, or work in a tightly knit community.)
Kenneth Pelletier, a world-renowned researcher at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention, sums it up well when he concludes this: “A sense of belonging and connection to other people appears to be a basic human need, as basic as food and shelter. In fact, social support may be one of the critical elements distinguishing those who remain healthy from those who become ill.”
In a very famous epidemiology study, one of the most referenced of its kind because of its impressive sample size, researchers Dr. Lisa Berkman and Dr. Leonard Syme studied seven thousand residents of Alameda County, California. All of them were observed for a nine-year period in order to discover all the common denominators among the healthiest residents. The researchers controlled for gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, alcohol, tobacco, obesity, depression, and medical care. These were the results:
- The healthiest people were the ones with the greatest quantity and quality of social support.
- The most socially isolated people had the greatest morbidity (rate of disease) and mortality.
A large social support network and high frequency of contact directly correlated with health and made all the difference between health and illness.
In an eight-year follow-up of the Alameda County study with 6,848 of the initial seven thousand subjects, the researchers found results consistent with the initial study: a very strong correlation between the amount and quality of social support and reduced morbidity and mortality of all causes. Those who lived fairly isolated lives had a mortality rate that was three times greater than that of those with family or friends. It also found a very robust inverse correlation between the quantity and quality of social support and cancer. Those who were most socially isolated had a significantly greater chance of developing cancer and dying from it.
For the above reasons, I recommend actively practicing relationship-building.