Friends and family make life sweeter - but not a day longer

Social contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers in Canada

You can choose your friends but not your family… so goes the old adage. But those who believe family ties are key to a happy future may want to think again. An international study suggests that the embrace of a big, close-knit family group has no effect on whether you live long and prosper, and the number of social contacts with friends and relatives has little effect on longevity.

The researchers, from McGill University in Canada, examined the widely held assumption that social contact – or the lack of it – is linked to mortality.

They analysed almost 100 studies (involving 400,000 people from 17 countries, including the UK) of “social contact frequency” – defined as the frequency of social interactions with others. They found repeated contact with non-family members was found to be slightly more beneficial than contact with family members, improving one’s chances of living longer by about 7 per cent. Contact with family members may actually add stress, rather than be a source of support.

“Our findings show a minimal effect of social contact frequency on mortality and call into question interventions and clinical advice that simply seek to increase one’s social contact frequency,” said Dr Eran Shor, who led the study.

While the researchers stressed that they were not suggesting lack of social contact was a good thing, they cautioned that focusing on the idea that frequent social contact determined a person’s longevity was “misplaced”.

Many previous studies have reported links between social relationships and health and longevity, including a lower susceptibility to cancer, heart disease, and infectious diseases.

Last year, doctors in the US quantified the effects of loneliness, concluding that lonely people are nearly twice as likely to die prematurely than those who do not suffer feelings of isolation. Many health professionals now see loneliness as a more worrying factor than obesity. Various therapies have been put forward to combat the effects of loneliness, including increased emotional support, improved healthy behaviours, and access to more help and assistance.

But the researchers at McGill said that while the majority of existing studies reported a positive link between increased contact and longevity, their own study found only a very moderate effect when taking into account the influence of other variables, such as age, socioeconomic status and chronic conditions.

One possible explanation, they say, is that contact by itself may not be sufficient: “Simply associating with others may not be enough to provide emotional comfort or instrumental assistance or to push an individual to adopt a healthier lifestyle, resulting in greater longevity.

“While contact is likely to decrease feelings of loneliness (which have been associated with decreased mental and physical health, which in turn are associated with higher mortality rates), there is no guarantee that this will indeed be the case. One may have frequent social contact with others, but still feel lonely, especially if these contacts are perceived as superficial and unsatisfying.”

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