Love, family, and friendship are basic human needs. People around the world consider their relationships with family and close friends as their most significant source of meaning, purpose, and motivation in their lives. This is for a very good reason—studies have shown that not having enough social connections increases the chances of dying by at least 50%.

If that’s shocking to hear, just wait. Social isolation has serious and far-reaching consequences for our health and well-being. Science has many theories on how to live past 100, but there’s one that stands above the rest. Of all the “secrets” to living a long life, the truth to longevity might just lie in our ability to deeply connect with one another.

Loneliness is a Disease, Too

The link between a lack of strong social relationships and detrimental health outcomes is impossible to ignore.  It can lead to chronic activation of different systems in our body, such as the immune, neuroendocrine, and metabolic systems.

These systems are involved in the development of common age-related health issues like heart problems and some types of cancer. Having less social support, being socially isolated, or just feeling lonely, can increase inflammation similar to the effects of physical inactivity.

Chronic inflammation throughout the body is connected to various chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.  It also contributes to various mental, cognitive, and physical health issues that raise the risk of premature death.

Earlier this year, the United States became one of a list of countries that have declared loneliness to be an epidemic. The US Surgeon General released an 82-page report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation”. It details many of the causes of social isolation, as well as its effects, both societal and individual. According to this report, research indicates that poor social connections are associated with a 29% higher risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.

Additionally, chronic loneliness and social isolation in older adults can elevate the risk of developing dementia by approximately 50%.  Studies have found connections between social relationships and markers of inflammation, poorer immune function, and overall bodily stress.

The study also found that people who are more stressed tend to have fewer friends or social connections. Those dealing with stressful relationships often engage in unhealthy habits like poor eating and increased smoking. Stress can have widespread effects throughout our body, and the way our body’s systems handle stress plays a big role in how long we live.

Treating the Loneliness Epidemic

The Surgeon General’s plan also detailed a plan to combat the effects of social isolation from individual, community, and national perspectives. The plan includes specific recommendations for governments, healthcare workers, and regular individuals, as well as many others. The US isn’t the only country dealing with a loneliness epidemic; it’s spread worldwide.

In some parts of the UK, family doctors (GPs) are now suggesting activities like book clubs to help patients with both health and personal issues. This survey found that one in five visits to GPs in England is because of non-medical problems, like feeling lonely or having trouble with work or relationships.

Here’s how it works: When a GP sees that a patient has non-medical needs, like needing help with money, getting around, or making friends, they connect them with a social prescribing link worker. These link workers are not doctors but professionals who talk to the person, figure out their problems, make a plan together based on what the person wants, and connect them with the right resources.

The results seem positive. About half of the 9,000 people helped by British Red Cross link workers said they didn’t feel lonely anymore after about 12 weeks. This shows that addressing non-medical issues through social prescribing can really make a difference in people’s lives.

The Japanese government has tried something even more surprising. One in five Japanese women in their fifties have never been married; more shockingly, one-third of Japanese men in their fifties said the same. Over time, young people’s lack of interest or ability to start a family led to a steadily declining birth rate. To alleviate this problem,  In 2020, they unveiled plans to invest in AI-powered matchmaking software.

The jury is still out on whether this attempt at playing cupid for its citizens will have an impact on Japan’s birth rate. It takes time for couples to meet and decide to settle down together, so we won’t see the results of this matchmaking experiment for another few years. What we can see is that even governments around the world are noticing the powerful effects of connection.

Connection is the Best Medicine

More diverse social networks were associated with greater resistance to the common cold. People who have strong connections with others are more eat well, smoke less, and are a bit more active. A comprehensive study found that respondents who reported close friendships saw a 9% increase in their likelihood to exercise and reduced the risk of depression by 17%.

Researchers also noticed the relationship between social bonds and major health consequences. They saw a 19% lower likelihood of having a stroke, and a 24% lower chance of passing away before the end of the eight-year study.

In a 2016 study, researchers found that people who have more friends or a bigger social circle are also better at enduring pain. The reason behind this is linked to a natural chemical in our brains called endorphin, which is a powerful painkiller, even stronger than morphine.

Endorphins not only help us cope with stress, whether it’s physical or emotional, but they also give us a good feeling when we’re around others, making us want to connect socially. The presence of longstanding social connections promotes our brain’s ability to produce endorphins, making them more readily available to us in times of physical discomfort.

In the context of chronic health conditions, social support has also proven to be beneficial. In diabetic patients, family involvement and support have consistently demonstrated positive effects on disease management for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

In both the long- and short-term, being with the people we love is good for our health. From reducing stress to increasing cognitive functioning, the benefits are evident. So, if you’re looking for your personal fountain of youth, start by exploring your friendships and family relationships. That’s where the real magic is.