Social Science: The Health Benefits of Friendship

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Social Science: The Health Benefits of Friendship

It’s fairly obvious that friendship is beneficial to our mental and emotional health, but two studies from 2016 suggest that social connections may have physical health benefits as well.

The first, published in April by Oxford University in Scientific Reports, showed that people with larger social networks have higher pain tolerances. This is because social connection causes the release of endorphins, which act as a painkiller “stronger than morphine.” The connection between social connection and pain tolerance was discovered by Katerina Johnson, a doctoral student in Oxford University’s Departments of Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology, who was trying to find neurobiological explanations for why some people are more social than others, and have larger networks of friends.

“One theory,” Johnson said, “is that social interactions trigger positive emotions when endorphin binds to opioid receptors in the brain. This gives us that feel-good factor that we get from seeing our friends.”

“Studies suggest that the quantity and quality of our social relationships affect our physical and mental health and may even be a factor determining how long we live,” Johnson said. “Therefore, understanding why individuals have different social networks sizes and the possible neurobiological mechanisms involved is an important research topic. As a species, we’ve evolved to thrive in a rich social environment but in this digital era, deficiencies in our social interactions may be one of the overlooked factors contributing to the declining health of our modern society.”

Her hypothesis was that people with larger social networks would have higher pain tolerances because of the higher levels on endorphins in their brains, and this did in fact turn out to be the case. There is, however, a question of causation vs. correlation. It isn’t clear whether larger social networks lead to higher tolerance for pain, or whether people with lower pain tolerance are less likely to have large social networks. The connection between endorphins and pain tolerance is clear, but people get endorphin rushes from various sources, and some may get larger releases from social interaction than others. The study also showed that people who exercise more have higher tolerances for pain, which may be because working out causes a similar rush of endorphins to a good conversation with a friend.

The connection between tolerance for pain and social interaction is an interesting one whether there’s causation or correlation there, but may need to be put to a few more tests before coffee dates are prescribed as replacements for pain killers.

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Another study, published last month in the American Cancer Society journal Cancer, showed that women with more social connections (including friendships, spouses and religious networks) have a higher rate of surviving breast cancer.

“It is well established that women who have more social ties generally, including those with breast cancer, have a lower risk of death overall,” said Candyce H. Kroenke ScD, MPH, lead author of the study and a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research. “Our findings demonstrate the beneficial influence of women’s social ties on breast cancer-specific outcomes, including recurrence and breast cancer death.”

The study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and funded by the National Cancer Institute, included 9,267 women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in stages one-to-four, and data from studies conducted in California, Utah, Oregon, Arizona, Texas and Shanghai, China. Researchers surveyed women within two years of diagnosis about their social ties, and followed their progress for up to 20 years.

Researchers examined how lifestyle factors including exercise, diet, and social interaction affect breast cancer survivor rates, and came up with some impressive results. Their findings showed no small margin, but that socially isolated women were 43 percent more likely to have a recurrence of breast cancer, 64 percent more likely to die from breast cancer, and 69 percent more likely to die from any cause.

The study also showed that different kinds of social ties were of varying impact for women in different socio-economic circumstances: having or not having a spouse had a larger impact on older white women’s survival rates than it did on other demographics’, and number of friendships had an especially high impact on non-white women.

It’s unclear whether these results mean that social isolation has a negative impact or social connection has a positive one, but in the end the results are the same either way: better social integration, higher survival rates; social isolation, earlier death. There’s a bit of uncertainty lingering with both of these studies, but a picture seems to be taking shape of the power of social interaction to make our bodies, as well as our minds, healthier and more resilient. Think about that next time you consider passing up an invitation in favor of yet another night of binging on Netflix.

Top image: Courtesy of Unsplash

Lilly Dancyger is Deputy Editor of Narratively, and a freelance journalist based in New York City.

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