Is more always better? The ‘optimal’ amount of social interaction you need to live longer

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There is no single path to longevity and many intersect. For example, eating a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise are both essential to living a long life. Decades of research have also highlighted the importance of social contact for health.

Higher levels of social integration, for example, more frequent contact with friends) have been associated with better physical health and a lower likelihood of a range of conditions, as well as a healthier lifestyle including more physical exercise, healthier diet, and more regular medical screening behaviours.

How much social contact you need to reap the benefits is less clear.

New research published in the journal Sage examined the nonlinear association of social contact frequency with physical health and longevity.

Nonlinearity is a term used to describe a situation where there is not a straight-line or direct relationship between two events or processes.

The research comprised two studies: study one tested the nonlinear association between social contact frequency and self-rated physical health using cross-sectional survey data from a large international dataset.

Study two used longitudinal data and examined whether the prospective effect of social contact frequency on self-rated physical health and mortality risks follows a nonlinear pattern too.

The first study demonstrated that once the frequency of social contact reached a moderate level (monthly or weekly), its positive association with health flattened out.

Study two extended these findings to longitudinal and mortality data.

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Although low contact frequency was associated with poor health and low survival rates, increasing the frequency of social interactions beyond a moderate level (monthly or weekly) was no longer associated with better health and longevity and, in some cases, was even related to worse health and increased mortality risks.

The benefits of social interaction

Many people enjoy family gatherings, getting together with friends, and participating in special religious, community, and workplace activities.

But the benefits do not stop at enjoyment: they also influence your long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking.

Scientists are investigating the biological and behavioural factors that account for the health benefits of connecting with others.

For example, they’ve found that it helps relieve harmful levels of stress, which can adversely affect coronary arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, and the immune system.

Another line of research suggests that caring behaviours trigger the release of stress-reducing hormones.

“Research has also identified a range of activities that qualify as social support, from offers of help or advice to expressions of affection,” reports Harvard Health.

In addition, the health body says, evidence suggests that the life-enhancing effects of social support extend to giver as well as to receiver.

“All of this is encouraging news because caring involvement with others may be one of the easiest health strategies to access.”

Harvard Health adds: “It’s inexpensive, it requires no special equipment or regimen, and we can engage in it in many ways.”

Do not neglect other areas, however.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is an important part of maintaining good health, and can help you feel your best.

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