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More than just Friday night fun: socially active teens are physically healthier

A new study shows that social connections impact health significantly in two distinct stages — adolescence and old age.
/ Source: TODAY

Teenage social butterflies have always enjoyed slumber parties and Friday night fun.

Now, researchers say, socially active teens, like their older counterparts, are healthier than their loner peers in key areas such as weight, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels.

The friendships we make in our teen years are just as essential for our well-being as the social connections we make late in life, a new study finds.

Teenage Friends
Teenage FriendsShutterstock

“It is really what goes on in adolescence that is important for your health,” says Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina.

“We thought that social relationships would be important in adolescence but…we were surprised to show it was so important.”

Mullan Harris and her colleagues looked at data from four longitudinal studies, with anywhere from 863 to 7,889 participants. The researchers examined social relationships and health in adolescence, middle age, and old age by measuring four markers — blood pressure, abdominal fat, BMI, and C-reactive protein, a measure for inflammation. Inflammation often indicates chronic levels of stress hormones.

Mullan Harris found that adolescents with fuller social lives experience better health than their lonelier peers. Social teens were less likely to be obese. And, isolated teens maintained as much inflammation as people who skipped a workout.

Researchers have long known that social connections in old age were linked to better health. But how relationships contribute to health through different stages of life remained unclear. This study shows that social connections impact health significantly in two distinct stages — adolescence and old age — and why.

“The theory is the more integrated you are in social networks and the more social support you have …all these would help with coping with stress,” Mullan Harris says.

The findings underlie the importance of relationships and connections as it relates to overall health. Mullan Harris says it’s important for teens to be involved in something—school, friends, the community, or family. If a teen shies away from sports, but engages in the debate club, she will still experience a positive health boost.

The study also provided insight into social relationships in middle age.

People experience the most social connections during middle age and the study indicates that selectively fostering relationships remains wise. Having positive relationships doesn’t provide that much protection, but having stressful relationships can wreck health. Pruning unhealthy connections helps overall wellbeing.

“When these relationships are straining that is a risk for your health,” Mullan Harris says.

Elderly people who felt more connected—to family, peers, and the community—experienced less obesity and hypertension.

Mullan Harris believes that the results indicate a need for healthcare professionals to think of social relationships as an important part of health.

“We are looking at the biological mechanism that increases the risk of disease and death. The fact that we can uncover the mechanism for these risks is a new and important finding,” she says.

“It allows us to intervene …educate people and develop programs.”