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Friends for Life

How social connection can help predict mortality risk


The world is in the grip of a health crisis. Obesity, inactivity, and our poor diets are key factors in the growing trend of chronic illness. This in turn places significant stress on our healthcare systems as medical providers attempt to keep pace with demand.

Globally, a number of initiatives have been launched to reverse these trends. We have undertaken a wealth of research to understand the effects of what we are putting into our mouths, resulting in widely divided opinions on the approach to diet. Everything from fats, sugars, the humble potato, and even a previous hero – red wine – have been questioned.

Technology is often seen as the silver bullet. We eagerly strap wearable devices to our bodies to inspire ourselves to move. Even our dinner plates are becoming smart, able to measure what we are eating and how many calories each meal contains. Despite initial optimism, studies have recently shown that wearable devices do not necessarily change behavior – that they simply act as measuring tools. We are essentially strapping the equivalent of a bathroom scale to our wrists and hoping it makes a difference.

Our lack of real progress begs the question: are we missing something?

The Friend Factor

The one factor that hasn’t received its fair share of attention is our friends. Although it may sound esoteric, a large body of research shows that social connection is key to physical and mental health.

In 2010, Timothy Smith and Julianne Hold-Lunstad published a meta-analytic review of this research in PLoS Medicine (“Social Relationships and Mortality Risk”). They found that those with stronger social relationships were 50% more likely to survive. When they examined studies with more complex social measures, they found that strong social connection predicted a 91% increase in survival odds. To put this in context, social connection is a stronger predictor of mortality than a person’s body mass index (BMI) and physical activity. Further, it can add as many years to your life as quitting a pack-a-day smoking habit.

What is clear from this research is that our friends have benefits and social connection cannot be ignored in our search to solve the global health challenge. The way our communities fit together and people support each other is fundamental to our health. We need to consider the active development of our communities, whether it be through sport, reading groups, clubs, or support to address unhealthy relationships. 

The Insurance Opportunity

To evaluate applicants, insurers take blood, measure urine, and even talk about genetic testing. Social connection is at least as predictive as many of our traditional risk factors – yet it is largely ignored on most insurance application forms. Can we use social connection as part of underwriting? And dare we use it in place of blood tests? Certainly this could be a huge leap forward for online insurance sales.

Of course, as with any data, social data needs to be very carefully handled so that we don’t intrude on people’s privacy.

We have a growing number of wellness initiatives being developed that extend from corporate employers to insurers and health schemes. These bring innovative angles to improving physical and even mental health. It is critical to include social health in these programs. These changes don’t have to be dramatic either – simply tweaking existing incentives to include a social element is a good start. For example, giving greater recognition to park runs or walking with someone rather than alone.

We may be heading for a future where our wearable devices won’t just measure physical steps, but also social ones. Ultimately our friends are key – without them we might be fighting a losing battle for our health.

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  • Attending Physician Statement
  • Quantified Self
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  • wearable medical device
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