Being part of a social group can be better for a person's health and well-being, and can even provide better protection against memory loss and the effects of ageing, than many drugs and medicines, scientists said yesterday.
Studies have shown that when people feel part of a close-knit group they are less likely to suffer heart attacks, more able to cope with stress and better at retaining their memory than people who become socially isolated.
Conventional medical treatments have focussed on the individual but a more effective approach could be to concentrate on making patients feel part of a wider social group, said Professor Alex Haslam of the University of Exeter.
"We are social animals who live and have evolved to live in social groups. Membership of groups, from football teams to book clubs and voluntary societies, gives us a sense of social identify," Professor Haslam said.
"This is an indispensable part of who we are and what we need to be in order to lead rich and fulfilling lives. For this reason, groups are central to mental functioning, health and well-being," he said.
A study of 650 stroke patients followed over a period of five years found that those who were part of a close-knit social group were significantly less likely to suffer a second, life-threatening problem over a given period of time.
"Standard medical factors such as hypertension, lack of exercise, family history of coronary artery disease increased the risk of a second life-threatening incident by between 10 and 30 per cent," Professor Haslam said.
"Social isolation increased the incidence of a secondary, life-threatening event such as a heart attack. It doubled the risk after one year," he said.
Another study involving 70 residents of care homes for the elderly found that if people were put into groups of five individuals and asked to discuss their memories or to play a game of skittles, they did better than those who did the same things on a one-to-one basis.
"After six weeks of this group therapy you get a 12 per cent increase in standard memory tests. If we had a drug that provided that level of improvement you could sell it for a lot of money," Professor Haslam told the British Science Festival.
"The point here is that the drug is us. The drug is the social group. When you do the same therapy individually you don't get the same improvements at all," he said.
The same kind of effect was also seen in a study of fire-fighters who were asked to rate their sense of group cohesion. Firemen with strongest sense of being in a group were more resilient to stress than those were loners.
"Identification with the team of firemen, a sense of 'us' as a unit, is absolutely critical to peoples' resilience in those situations," Professor Haslam said.
"The less you identify with the group, the more likely you are to avoid a situation. The more you identify with the group the more willing you are to go back and face the fire, again and again," he said.
In a study of 42 anti-social incidents captured on city-centre CCTV cameras, scientists found that incidents involving groups of druken individuals were less likely to end in violence than those involving just a few individuals.
"When individuals engage in confrontation with each other, that is much more likely to end in violence. The more other people come in and get involved, the more likely they are to diffuse the situation," Professor Haslam said.
"In fact you get an 88 per cent reduction in violent outcomes as a function of having larger groups," he said.
"Groups are good for us in every sense, but in coming understanding, groups get a pretty bad press," he told the festival.
"There's a growing awareness that this is an absolutely critical issue. The big question is why has it been ignored for so long given the profound impact that it has?" he added.
"Understanding the social determinants of health can present powerful practical solutions to pressing problems. Compared to standard medical options, these solutions are relatively cheap," Professor Haslam said.
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