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QUEENSLAND, Australia — Satisfying relationships may be the best medicine for women during middle age, a new study explains. A team from the University of Queensland says this can range from relationships with spouses, to friends, family, and even work colleagues. Overall, they lower the risk of poor health and chronic disease during old age — at least for women, the team says.

The less satisfying those relationships are during middle age, the greater the risk of developing multiple long-term problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. The team’s findings only have a partial link to factors such as income, education, and lifestyle, according to the research published in the journal General Psychiatry.

What factors lead to having poor relationships?

Study authors say there’s mounting evidence showing a link between strong social networks and well-being during old age. However, it’s still unclear if the connections might lower the risk of multiple long-term conditions, which are particularly prevalent among older women. To assess the impact a woman’s level of satisfaction with her relationships influences her future health, researchers looked at health data from more than 13,000 Australian women. The participants were between 45 and 50 years-old in 1996.

Researchers tracked their health and well-being every three years, up until 2016. They had to rank their levels of satisfaction with each of five categories of relationships on a four-point scale. The participants also reported if they developed diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, osteoporosis, arthritis, cancer, depression, or anxiety during this time.

Accumulating two or more health issues from a starting point of having none — or developing an additional condition from just one, or from two or more — was defined as having multiple conditions by the research team. The final analysis included 7,694 women, 58 percent of whom accumulated multiple long-term health conditions over 20 years of monitoring.

Those who did were more likely to have lower educational attainment, struggled living off their income, were overweight or obese, physically inactive, had a history of smoking, or had a surgically-induced case of menopause. Overall, the study finds greater the levels of satisfaction with relationships lowers the risks of accumulating multiple long-term health conditions.

Having poor relationships doubles the risk for disease

Compared with women reporting the highest level of satisfaction, those with the poorest relationships were more than twice as likely to have several health problems, even after adjusting for potentially influential factors. The impact of poor relationships also had a similar effect as other well-established risk factors, such as obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, and drinking alcohol.

The team adds that when all five types of relationships — with partners, family, friends, work colleagues, and other social connections — were included in the analysis, the association weakened, but still remained “significant” for all except friendships. They found similar results while analyzing individual conditions separately.

However, other well-established risk factors, including socio-economic position, health behaviors, and menopausal status, explains less than 20 percent of the observed association. The team says further research is necessary to look at other specific effects of relationships on the accumulation of multiple chronic health conditions. These factors include intimacy, quantity, and emotional and practical support.

“Our findings have significant implications for chronic disease management and intervention. First, at the individual level, these implications may help counsel women regarding the benefits of starting or maintaining high quality and diverse social relationships throughout middle to early old age,” the study authors write in a media release.

“Second, at the community level, interventions focusing on social relationship satisfaction or quality may be particularly efficient in preventing the progression of chronic conditions.”

“Third, at the country and global levels, social connections (eg, social relationship satisfaction) should be considered a public health priority in chronic disease prevention and intervention,” the research team concludes.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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