On Being Social … and Well

This post started with a conversation about an RSS alert from The Economist.
My wife, Sue, receives a range of RSS feeds each day on her iPad. Earlier this week a story about social isolation and illness led to a fascinating breakfast time and on-going conversation.
It prompted me to follow up on the paper that informed The Economist article.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith and Bradley Layton’s paper Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review appeared in PLoS Medicine, July 2010. Its publication in PLoS Medicine made the paper even more interesting for me given the open access nature of the journal.
The objectives of the paper, a meta-analytic review, were ” to determine the extent to which social relationships influence risk for mortality, which aspects of social relationships are most highly predictive, and which factors may moderate the risk.” Julianne, Timothy and Bradley reviewed 148 studies (from January 1900 to January 2007) involving a total of 308,849 participants and suggest that “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships.”
Their summary of their findings is:

These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. Furthermore, the overall effect of social relationships on mortality reported in this meta-analysis might be an underestimate, because many of the studies used simple single-item measures of social isolation rather than a complex measurement. Although further research is needed to determine exactly how social relationships can be used to reduce mortality risk, physicians, health professionals, educators, and the media should now acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults and should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality, the researchers conclude.

These are the metrics for the paper at the time I accessed it:

I wonder if this reader profile is a good example of a social effect too.
Greg Miller has noted subsequently that:

In a steady stream of recent papers, social psychologists have identified several potentially unhealthy changes in the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems of chronically lonely people. The findings could help explain why epidemiological studies have often found that socially isolated people have shorter life spans and increased risk of a host of health problems, including infections, heart disease, and depression. The work also adds a new wrinkle, suggesting that it’s the subjective experience of loneliness that’s harmful, not the actual number of social contacts a person has. An impressive network of collaborations with researchers in other disciplines is now pioneering a new science of loneliness.

Stephen Cole has added to the discussion with his paper at AAAS in February 2011. He and a number of colleagues have published a paper in Genome Biology too. They conclude in that paper:

These data provide the first indication that human genome-wide transcriptional activity is altered in association with a social epidemiological risk factor. Impaired transcription of glucocorticoid response genes and increased activity of pro-inflammatory transcription control pathways provide a functional genomic explanation for elevated risk of inflammatory disease in individuals who experience chronically high levels of subjective social isolation.

Many years ago as a young student I read about anomie and alienation.  A breakfast conversation and a search for links has brought back memories of these early readings of Durkheim and Marx. They were crystallised for me by a conversation in our family car about Albert Camus’ The Outsider on a road trip in Tasmania this week.
I realise how fortunate I am to have the opportunity for breakfast conversations and family car journeys.
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