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A group of seniors play bridge at the Stan Wadlow Clubhouse in the Cedarvale area of Toronto on July 27. The group meets regularly.Kevin Van Paassen

Relationships have health benefits that can help people live longer, a team of researchers says.

Whether it's working out with a gym buddy, cooking a healthy meal for family or going to see a doctor on the advice of a spouse, "relationships provide a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives - they can lead us to take better care of ourselves," said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an associate psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Prof. Holt-Lunstad co-wrote a report that said that people with strong relationships are 50 per cent more likely to live longer than those with few social links with family, friends, neighbours or colleagues. Or to put it another way, the researchers say their study shows that isolation carries the same risk of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, not exercising, or being an alcoholic or severely obese.

"Our relationships can have direct health benefits," said Prof. Holt-Lunstad. "They can help us cope with stress. We know we can count on people and have these resources available."

Prof. Holt-Lunstad co-authored the large-scale report on mortality and social relationships, which was released on Tuesday. The report looks at 148 studies involving 308,849 people. The average age was 64. The participants were evenly split between the sexes, and followed for an average of 7.5 years.

Those who had strong social relationships were 50 per cent more likely to survive through the monitoring phase than their lonely counterparts, which means that those over age 18 with solid relationships lived an average of 3.7 years longer than those with weaker relations.

Relationships as stress busters: It's something Sham Sabherwal has put into practice.

Since losing his wife Sudesh to cancer 19 years ago, Mr. Sabherwal, 77, has been a regular at Toronto's Stan Wadlow Clubhouse, where he plays bridge every Tuesday afternoon.

"Bridge is a game where you can really find a good friend," says the retired Firestone administrator, who also volunteers with the Red Cross and the Daily Bread Food Bank.

"People are friendly [at the club] They try to help each other and understand each other's problems ... grief you are facing, financial problems, family problems or social problems," Mr. Sabherwal said. "When you share more, it lightens the burden and takes away the sense that you are the only one who is suffering."

The study's authors say that being part of a social network, makes people feel needed and boosts self-esteem. They add that people who feel that others depend on them take better care of themselves. Relationships have been linked to lower blood pressure, better immune functioning and decreases in the length of hospitalizations, the authors write, citing previous studies. Social contact has also been linked to oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which regulates stress.

"Social connection is to humans what water is to fish: you don't notice it until it's missing and then you realize it's really important," says John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist who studies social contagion, including the way lonely people perpetuate a cycle of isolation in their communities.

Prof. Cacioppo says modern affluence is generating more solitary lives: "It used to be that when the husband - the wage earner - died, the [surviving]spouse had to move in with friends and family. Now we have affluence, so that the spouse is able to stay in the home alone."

He sees rampant isolated living among the middle-aged as well: "You've got a lot of men living by themselves post-divorce and women whose children have left and now they're alone."

Prof. Holt-Lunstad suggests the loss of inter-generational living arrangements, as well as a spike in delayed marriages, dual-career families and age-related disabilities are intensifying the trend.

"...Over the last two decades, there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who report having no confidante," the authors of the current report write, citing a 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review that looked at 1,467 people over two decades.

The decline in confidantes may come as a surprise in the digital age. Despite Facebook's recruitment of a 500 millionth user last week, people are losing face time with each other, a point that concerns the authors.

"I do wonder whether or not these online relationships can provide us with the same kinds of benefits and resources as face-to-face physical contact," Prof. Holt-Lunstad said.

The authors are agitating for public health campaigns that "foster existing relationships and naturally occurring relationships." The report, co-authored by Timothy Smith and J. Bradley Layton, appears in the current issue of the journal PLoS Medicine.

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