Providing social support to others could be good for your health.
A study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity by researchers at Ohio State University found that those who have positive social relationships in which they are available to provide support to others had lower levels of inflammation.
“Most previous research examining the link between social relationships and health (especially systemic inflammation) has focused on receiving or perceiving social support from others, but overlooked the effects of giving social support to others. Because giving social support is essential to social relationships, we sought to examine how giving support play a role in the link between social relationships and systemic inflammation,” Tao Jiang, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State told Theravive.
“We found that positive social relationships are associated with lower IL-6 (a marker of systemic inflammation) only for individuals who believe they can give more support in those relationships.”
In undertaking the research, Jiang and colleagues used data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the US. They used data from 1054 participants aged between 34 and 84.
The participants responded to a questionnaire aimed at measuring their social integration. The questionnaire included questions asking whether they were married or lived with a partner, how frequently they attended activities or social groups, and how often they were in contact with their friends and family.
They were also asked to what extent they believed they could rely on friends, their family or their spouse if they needed help.
Finally, they were also asked to what extent they were available to support their friends, family or their spouse.
“We had three indicators of positive social relationships in the study. The first indicator is the amount of important social connections people have (i.e., social integration). The more important social connections people have (e.g., married or living with a partner, contacting friends regularly, attending social activities regularly), the more positive social relationships they have,” Jiang told Theravive.
“The second indicator is the belief that relationship partners are available and provide support when needed (perceived social support/perceived support-availability). The more people believe they can rely on their relationship partners for support when needed, the more positive social relationships they have. The third indicator is the subjective perception of relationship quality with others. The more people perceive they have good relationships with others, the more positive social relationships they have.”
Two years after the questionnaire, the same participants underwent a blood test, including testing for the IL-6 marker, which is indicative of systemic inflammation in the body.
“Systemic Inflammation is one important biological mechanism proposed to explain the link between social relationships and physical and mental health. Inflammation is an immune response not only to injury or infection but also to psychosocial stressors, such as social isolation or negative interpersonal interactions,” Jiang said.
“Chronic psychosocial stressors can sensitize the inflammatory response and thus heighten systemic Inflammation, a contributor to many physical and mental health problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression. Positive social relationships can reduce psychosocial stress, which may reduce systemic inflammation, and thus, improve physical and mental health.”
Those who said they were able to provide social support to their family had lower levels of inflammation in their body.
“This research provides a more nuanced understanding of the link between social relationships and systemic inflammation. Positive relationships with others may reduce systemic inflammation only when people believe they are available to support others in those relationships,” Jiang said.
The researchers say their findings suggest that the health benefits of a good relationship stem from the idea the support in the relationship is mutual. These relationships may be particularly rewarding and stress-relieving for people, which in turn reduces inflammation.
The study also found the connection between health and being able to offer social support to others was strongest in women.
The researchers say this may be indicative of the fact social relationships are typically seen as more important for women than in men. However, the authors note the sample size of their study isn’t large enough to conclusively prove this.
“The current study found preliminary evidence that the moderating effects of perceived support-giving might be further qualified by gender, being significant only in women. However, this evidence is not robust because the results were inconsistent across different indicators of positive social relationships and were not robust when adjusting for covariates. We will examine this possible gender difference with better powered and longitudinal studies,” Jiang said.