In a study from The University of Queensland, scientists found satisfying relationships in midlife with partners, friends, or work colleagues are linked to a lower risk of multiple chronic diseases in older age—at least among women.
The less satisfying these relationships were, the greater the risk, with the findings only partially explained by influential factors, such as income, education, and health behaviors.
Prior studies have found a link between strong social networks and good health/well-being in older age.
But it’s not known if these connections might lower the risk of multiple long-term conditions (multimorbidity), which many older women, in particular, face.
In the study, the team used data from 13,714 participants of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH).
They focused on how a women’s satisfaction with their relationships—partner, family, friends, work colleagues, and other social connections—may influence their disease risks
All the women in the current study were aged 45-50 in 1996. Their health and well-being were tracked roughly every three years via questionnaire up to 2016.
The final analysis included 7,694 women, 58% (4,484) of whom accumulated multiple chronic diseases over 20 years of monitoring.
The team found overall, relationship satisfaction was linked to the accumulation of multiple chronic diseases: the greater the levels of satisfaction, the lower the risks.
Compared with women reporting the highest level of satisfaction, those who reported the lowest were more than twice as likely to accumulate multiple diseases.
The strength of the association was comparable with that of well-established risk factors, such as overweight/obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, and alcohol intake.
When all 5 types of relationships were included in the analysis, the association weakened, but still remained strong for all except friendships.
The team also found other risk factors, such as socioeconomic position, health behaviors, and menopausal status, together only explained less than one-fifth of the effects.
These findings have strong implications for chronic disease management and intervention.
First, at the individual level, these implications may help counsel women regarding the benefits of starting or maintaining high-quality and diverse social relationships throughout the middle to early old age.
Second, at the community level, interventions focusing on social relationship satisfaction or quality may be particularly efficient in preventing the progression of chronic conditions.
Third, at the country and global levels, social connections should be considered a public health priority in chronic disease prevention and intervention.
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The study was conducted by Xiaolin Xu et al and published in General Psychiatry.
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