Mutually supportive relationships improve future health

improve future health, good relationships
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Good, social relationships mean an individual receives but also gives significant support – now, scientists suggest that the giving part may improve future health

Tao Jiang, lead author of the study conducted at Ohio State University, US, wanted to solve a mystery. In recent memory, several studies have confirmed that receiving social support via a strong relationship – whether platonic or romantic – can make a significant difference to individual health.

Humans are notoriously social creatures. Communities, families, friendship groups, partners.

The COVID pandemic especially highlighted the crucial importance of talking about problems and reaching out for support from loved ones. A different team found that Canadian suicide survivors were six times more likely to heal if they had someone to “confide” in. Data shows that loneliness literally changes the structure of the human brain, an issue that clinically vulnerable individuals still struggle with as the virus continues to dominate globally.

Measuring a mutually supportive relationship

But what about giving support? Jiang, a doctoral candidate, examined if giving support can make any impact on future health, by measuring certain biomarkers via blood tests.

Associate professor Baldin Way said: “Higher levels of IL-6 are associated with increased risk for many of the diseases that are the top killers of Americans, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. That’s why we thought it was important to find out why previous studies found such weak evidence for the link between social support and lower inflammation.”

The study used data from 1,054 participants in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the US. Participants completed a questionnaire that measured their “social integration,” asking if they were married or living with a partner, how often they contacted family and friends, and how often they attended social groups or activities.

Participants also completed a measure of how much they believed they could rely on their family, friends or spouse if they needed help.

Two years later, the same people returned for blood tests – including a test for interleukin-6 (IL-6), is a marker of systemic inflammation in the body.

Did giving support improve future health?

It did, theoretically. The study never asks anyone to perform acts of support, just if they’re likely to provide that kind of support.

The team found that chronic inflammation, a key determinant of future conditions like heart attacks and cancer, was lower in people who said they were available to provide social support to their loved ones.

It seems that mutual love is quite literally healing.

Jiang said: “Positive relationships may be associated with lower inflammation only for those who believe they can give more support in those relationships.”

The team intend to explore if the connection between social support and future health is more likely in women, as their existing sample size was too small for such a nuanced exploration.


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