In a famous study, epidemiology researcher James House (no relation to Gregory) and his team conducted a prospective study of 2,754 residents of Tecumseh, Michigan, observing their social ties and group activities for ten years. This was a very rigorous study in that residents with any medical or psychiatric condition that could possibly interfere with their ability to be active in a social community were excluded. Over time it became clear that people with the greatest participation in a social support network or group were the healthiest. Those who initially had great support but who, because of various life circumstances, lost their connection to community were found to develop a variety of health problems. Those with the least social support were found to have four times the mortality rate of those with the most support.
Some of the most intriguing studies of the value of social support have tracked elderly people, some of which indicate that social support can actually counteract what we might consider “normal” deterioration as a result of aging. One study conducted over a ten-year period in Australia, revealed that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die over the period of the study. And in 2007, Harvard researchers found a strong association between social support and neurological health in older people.
In a study by psychologist Bert Uchino, thirty-eight residents of a retirement community received visits from volunteers three times a week for a month. Immune function tests were performed on all the residents at the beginning, during, and at the end of the month. At month’s end, immunoglobulin (antibody) levels as well as natural killer (NK) cell activity were increased. NK cells attack and destroy cancer cells and virus-infected cells.
In somewhat similar study conducted by psychoneuroimmunology researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, volunteers visited thirty elderly retirement home residents three times a week for one month. The residents agreed to allow the researchers to draw blood multiple times throughout the study, and they found a very significant increase in NK cells. They chose a three-times-a-week schedule for this study because they had previously noticed that residents who had visitors three times or more each week had significantly stronger immune systems than those residents who had fewer visitors.
One of the surprises of this study was that despite the fact that the residents of the retirement home knew the visitors were strangers who were only visiting them as part of an experiment, the subjects still received a boost in their immune systems. Under the circumstances, these visits would barely seem to qualify as social support, yet they still had a positive effect. Presumably, visits from people close to them would have produced an even greater effect.
Physician and psychophysiology researcher Bengt Arnetz ran a prospective randomized, controlled study of sixty retirement community residents. They discovered that the residents who received the most social support evidenced increased levels of DHEA and stable levels of growth hormones, both of which were unheard-of in elderly populations.
Neurobiologist Robert Ornstein and physician David Sobol performed a study involving 2500 elderly men and women in order to determine the effect of social support on health—a very impressive sample size. At the start of the study, the subjects were interviewed to determine the level of social support each was receiving. The researchers observed those subjects who were admitted to the hospital following heart attacks. They had controlled for co-morbid conditions (multiple illnesses) and severity of the heart attack. Of the patients who had two or more sources of social support, mortality was 12 percent. The patients with no social support had a 38 percent mortality rate.