- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

If the stack of bills a person pays this holiday season is thicker than the stack of Christmas cards sent to close friends, it might be time for that person to rethink priorities, says Dr. Anton Trinidad, vice chairman of the psychiatry department at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.

While running the rat race of life, it is easy to put friends and family on the back burner in pursuit of career goals. This is a mistake that could adversely affect a person’s health, Dr. Trinidad says.

In fact, research supports the idea that strong relationships boost the immune system, protecting against illness. People who are trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle for a longer life should elevate the importance of social networks on their list of concerns.

“Friendships are very important, more than most people realize,” he says. “The human brain is a social brain. It’s hard-wired to seek social relationships. We don’t even have a choice of that. If you deprive it, it’s like depriving someone of food.”

When people are subjected to long periods of isolation, such as a prison term or hospital stay, depression usually results, Dr. Trinidad says. The longer the person is confined from others, the more severe the depression.

Depression causes a lower level of lymphocytes, cells that fight infection, in the body. Depression also increases levels of stress hormones, which have an adverse effect on the immune system and can be responsible for hypertension, stroke and aggravation of pre-existing diabetes.

“Social relationships are part and parcel of our basic needs,” Dr. Trinidad says. “Lack of them not only causes depression, but also deprives us of basic social needs like conversation, intellectual stimulation and acculturation.”

Friendships, which decrease a person’s loneliness and isolation, bring a calming effect to the body, Dr. Trinidad says. He suggests deepening existing relationships before trying to create new ones — forming about 10 close relationships is more beneficial than numerous superficial acquaintances.

“The way we get closer in our friendships is sharing our problems,” he says. “You don’t get closer to someone if you hide your problems and you’re only a fair-weather friend.”

Research has shown that patients with advanced breast cancer who form new networks of social support in structured group therapy are living longer, says Dr. David Spiegel, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University in California.

Coping support for cancer patients directly increases life span, he says. He advises people who are ill to mobilize friends and family to help them.

“We’re social creatures,” he says. “A lot of our survival as a species depends on our social networks. … Social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking or high cholesterol levels. People who lack intimate relationships are at higher risk of dying.”

According to a 2000 study published in Health Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association in Northeast, people with high stress levels and low social support had a higher probability of having elevated prostate specific antigen — a marker for prostate cancer, says Arthur Stone, professor and vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at Stony Brook University in New York. He holds a doctorate in psychology.

“If you are trying to maximize your health, healthy relationships go along with physical health,” he says. “People should move them up on the ladder of their priorities.”

Despite old and new research on the topic, today’s culture still hides behind Palm Pilots and Caller ID, says Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Mr. Cohen also holds a doctorate in psychology.

Since the release of research by Lisa Berkman and Leonard Syme on social relationships and mortality in the Alameda County Study in 1979, Mr. Cohen has been investigating the topics. Ms. Berkman, who holds a doctorate, is a professor in the public policy departments of society, human development, and health and epidemiology at Harvard University. Mr. Syme, who holds a doctorate as well, is a professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Berkman and Syme paper was the first major study to proclaim that people who are socially integrated live longer. Factors such as marital status, relationships with friends and family, and participation in religious groups were taken into consideration.

Since then, most professionals agree that strong social networks are a stress buffer, Mr. Cohen says. Therefore, when a stressful event arises, people within the support system are able to aid one another through either emotional or practical means.

In June 1997, Mr. Cohen published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that reported the stronger a person’s social network the less likely he or she is to catch a cold. In fact, extroverts were relatively protected from illness, while introverts were more likely to get sick.

Although people may actively seek relationships, the ability to get along with others also is important, says Mr. Cohen, who published this finding in September in Psychological Science. Bad relationships that cause stress should be repaired even if professional help is needed — especially marriages because a large amount of time is spent with a spouse. Unfortunately, most people don’t take time to fix them, he says.

“Just having more interactions with people did not positively influence the possibility of getting sick,” he says. “The people who withstood illness are people who see themselves as being social and agreeable.”

Further, socially integrated people usually are more concerned about taking care of themselves, Mr. Cohen says. Because other people depend upon them, they have higher levels of self-esteem. They tend to have healthier attitudes toward smoking and alcohol consumption. They also sleep better, eat better and exercise more, which may contribute to a longer life.

“Social roles give their lives meaning,” he says. “It’s their identity … which leads them to be less likely to be depressed and anxious and more likely to take better care of themselves.”

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