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The scientific importance of social connections for your health

Today on the Huffington Post, Stanford student Keryn Breiterman-Loader shares her personal story about discovering how the strength of social connections can influence a person's health.

In the piece, Breiterman-Loader discusses past research that shows maintaining strong social relationships can lower a person's risk for certain health conditions. And she describes work by UC Los Angeles researcher Steven Cole, PhD, that suggests that social connections may affect one's immune system on a genetic level:

[Cole] looked at what genes were being expressed in lonely people and socially-integrated people and then compared to see if there was a difference. He did find a difference, and interestingly, the majority of genes influenced by our social connections are genes coding for immune response. People who feel socially isolated or detached, or experience a chronic threat of social losses, experience an upregulation in inflammatory genes and a downregulation in immune response genes.


[He] went on to explain that this response developed because it was evolutionarily beneficial. As we evolved on the savannah, threat from bacteria and viruses was heightened when we were around people, and so our bodies learned to send immune reinforcements when we spent time around other humans. Further, we were most vulnerable to threat from wild beasts when we were alone, and so in this circumstance our bodies learned to divert precious resources away from long-term repair and immune strength and toward more urgent matters of increasing our vigilance, heart rate, and blood flow to extremities in order to prepare us for fight or flight should we be attacked.

Interestingly, in this study people's subjective perception of their social connection was more predictive of their gene expression than the objective measures of social connection. This suggests that the quality of our relationships may be more important than quantity.

Previously: Examining how your friends influence your health, Can good friends help you live longer?How social networks might affect your health and New research confirms connection between loneliness, poor health
Photo by Amy Taylor

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