Research Plan Developed to Study the Relationship Between Social Connectedness and Health

Experts from the social, behavioral, physiological and medical sciences developed a plan to study how the extent to which people are socially connected (that is, have relationships with others) affects their physical health.

Between 2001 and 2002, the Mind Brain Body and Health Initiative, at the University of Texas Medical Branch, organized and guided the development of a research plan to address this issue.

Previous research by Lisa F. Berkman, PhD, of Harvard University and others has shown that people with a greater number of social relationships live longer and appear to recover more rapidly from illness.

However, little work has been done to describe the physiological mechanisms that lead to these impacts on health or how interventions could be designed to increase people's social relationships and overall health.

Key Results

  • A five-member planning group convened 10 meetings between October 2001 and December 2002 that drew on the knowledge of a multidisciplinary group of experts.

    Early meetings addressed psychological factors in the link between "social connectedness" and health, the physiological means by which this link occurs, and intervention strategies.

Key Findings

  • During these meetings, participants learned that:

    • There is compelling evidence that individuals with social relationships live longer and are physically and mentally healthier than more isolated individuals.
    • In contrast, the evidence that social interventions are effective in improving health is much weaker.
    • There are multiple problems associated with prior intervention studies; many did not consider the social, cultural and environmental context; the complexity of social relationships; or other aspects of social interaction.

Subsequent meetings included a presentation to RWJF staff and the development of a proposal to RWJF to fund a network of researchers at various institutions to study the relationships between social relationships and health. The proposal recommended the establishment of a research network to study, in tandem, the physiological mechanisms underlying the relationship between social connectedness and health and the social interventions that are effective in promoting health.