Every year at this time, I'm asked to recommend some healthy New Year's resolutions. Most people are surprised to learn that I put "renewing relationships" at the top of the list. Why? Because friends and family can be good medicine.
What do these relationships have to do with health? Two decades of research suggest: a lot. The studies show that people who are well connected to others are less likely to get sick than those who are socially isolated. If they do become ill, they are also more likely to recover.
The list of medical conditions influenced by a person's social life includes heart disease, dementia and even the common cold. In one study, healthy volunteers each received identical exposure to the virus responsible for causing many colds, then researchers monitored them for cold symptoms. Of the volunteers who had diverse social networks, only 35% developed colds, contrasted with more than 60% of volunteers with fewer types of social relationships.
Strong social supports also appear to promote recovery from some illnesses. Men who have good social connections have a lower risk of dying after a heart attack than men who don't; following a stroke, they are more likely to make significant functional improvements. And, in one study of women with breast cancer, those with the most close friends and relatives were found to have a markedly lower death rate from the disease than women with fewer close social ties. Strong and satisfying relationships may even help you live longer. Last year, researchers at Harvard University reported on a group of middle-aged and older men they had followed for 10 years. Death rates among socially isolated men were almost 20% higher than among men with stronger social ties.
An active social life may also improve mental health, particularly depression. In a recent study at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia, researchers questioned more than 2,000 older men about thoughts of death and suicide. Among those who had no close friends or relatives or who received no visitors, almost half reported that they had experienced thoughts of death or suicide. The more friends, relatives or visits an individual had, the less likely he was to have such thoughts.
It still isn't clear how relationships with others can cause these effects on your physical and mental health. Some researchers think it's because people with more social connections may be less likely to have unhealthy habits, such as smoking, drinking excessively or a poor diet. There's also some evidence that having good relationships can affect your body chemistry. By alleviating stress, for example, social support might reduce levels of hormones that are associated with high blood pressure and other medical problems.
The easiest way to build social ties is to renew and rejuvenate existing or past relationships. All it takes is a note, a phone call or a lunch date to get an old friendship going again.
If you don't have established relationships to draw on, it's time to make some new ones. That's not always a simple task. Community groups and charitable organizations are a great place to start, because they are always looking for help.
Besides doing meaningful work, which by itself can help you feel better about yourself, such activities offer opportunities for you to meet interesting and caring people.
If you need help matching your interests to an activity, an organization such as L.A. Works may help. The organization offers volunteer opportunities ranging from tutoring children to helping care for animals in shelters. For information, call (323) 224-6510 or visit its Web site, at www.la-volunteer.org.
Dr. Valerie Ulene is a specialist in preventive medicine practicing in Los Angeles.