Heres a riddle: Other than air, water, sleep and food, what is it that human adults need so badly that doing without it is as harmful to health as being an alcoholic or smoking 15 cigarettes a day? It is so important to your health that not having it is worse for you than being sedentary and is considered twice as dangerous as obesity. Its not sex -- though that may well be a part of it. Its social interaction, and believe it or not, having strong ties to other people is so vital that it actually improves your odds that youll live for any given period of time by 50%! People Need People These compelling statistics spelling out the importance of human relationships were identified in new research published in the July 2010 issue of PLoS Medicine, which analyzed 148 studies involving the social habits of 300,000 people over an average of seven and a half years. Until now, the link between lack of relationships and risk for death hasnt been widely explored. It was a goal of the authors, from the psychology department of Brigham Young University , to produce a review that is so comprehensive that the public and medical community both sit up and take notice. The researchers learned that social support provides numerous emotional benefits that translate into good health and longevity, specifically... Social connections help people handle difficult and uncomfortable emotions, including anxiety and anger. Friends and family act as helpful naggers -- they tend to encourage healthy lifestyles by urging people who arent healthy to sleep more, lose weight, eat healthfully, see a doctor, exercise or quit smoking. Social relationships provide meaning and purpose in life, and people who have a purpose are more likely to take better care of themselves and avoid unnecessary health risks. What Are The Benefits? "Our relationships influence long-term health through emotional and/or psychological responses that affect physiological processes," says the studys lead author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young. "The data shows us that real or perceived availability of social resources is linked to lower blood pressure, better immune functioning and decreased inflammatory processes for a number of different diseases." As an example, Dr. Holt-Lunstad cites a study in which participants wore a device that measures blood pressure throughout a 24-hour period -- it showed that people with social support tend to have lower blood pressure. However, despite the numerous studies showing that relationships are associated with healthiness, the exact mechanisms by which they do so are not clear. Epidemic of Loneliness Humans are naturally social, note the researchers, but many aspects of modern life lead to isolation. For instance, in our highly mobile society, people often live far from all or most of their family members. Many delay getting married and having children, and because more people of all ages are living alone, loneliness seems to be a growing problem. According to a Duke University study published in the American Sociological Review, over the past two decades, the number of Americans who say that they have no close confidantes has doubled -- to 25%. Increasingly popular technology that keeps us glued to a computer or cell phone inhibits development of close personal relationships. Acknowledging that the Internet may make it easier to meet people, Dr. Holt-Lunstad said she doesnt believe that online interactions can take the place of in-person engagement. For instance, studies show that physical touch from a loved one has measurable health benefits, including pain reduction and lowered blood pressure. Cancer patients who receive loving touch from friends or family members report less fatigue and nausea than those who did not. Quality Time Dr. Holt-Lunstad told me that shes more than once been asked "what about relationships that arent pleasant?" She said that quality absolutely is important, noting that scientific evidence does show that "negative relationships" can hurt our health. Rather than using that as a reason to be loners, however, Dr. Holt-Lunstad suggests this is evidence that we should work to improve existing relationships in addition to looking for more opportunities to develop new ones. In fact, said Dr. Holt-Lunstad, the quality of relationships is more significant than the quantity. "Having even one true confidante or someone you know you can turn to when you need a favor is important," she says. "You might have 50 people around you and still feel lonely -- we need to go beyond thinking about numbers." Whatever the cause of loneliness -- a negative perception of yourself or others, poor social skills, few social contacts or lack of a confidante -- this is one "medical treatment" that can be quite pleasant. Start by calling a friend today! Source(s): Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, associate professor of psychology, Brigham Young University , Provo , Utah .