Strong social support: Possibly as beneficial as healthy food

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” speaks to the importance of healthy foods in our diets.

The United Way Community Investment Committee recently decided to provide funding for group meals at both the Durango/La Plata County Senior Center in Durango and the Southern Ute Community Action Programs Senior Center in Ignacio. Both applications to the committee stressed the importance of regular, healthy nutrition to support our seniors and to help them maintain good health.

There is something else these seniors can gain from the meals, and it is perhaps as important as healthy food: social support.

Social support is a term often used to describe family, friends and others in our lives who help us to feel “liked, affirmed and encouraged,” said psychologist David Myers.

Numerous studies demonstrate the link between higher levels of social support and better physical and mental-health outcomes. People who have close, supportive relationships (through family, friends, churches, workplaces, etc.) are less likely to die prematurely and more likely to survive significant illnesses such as heart disease (see studies by Cohen, 1988; Case, 1992; and others).

There are many reasons why sufficient levels of support from those around us may help us have better outcomes. Helgeson and colleagues (1998) suggested several likely factors, which include encouragement to seek medical care in a more timely fashion, to eat healthier and to exercise more. Furthermore, they suggest that people with support tend to sleep better than those without, that friends help each other through stressful events by listening and guiding, and relationships help to maintain positive self-esteem.

The beneficial effects of support are clear, but researchers also recognize that close relationships can, at times, also be a source of stress.

Pet owners tend to receive great support from their furry companions that is not accompanied by extra anxiety. One intriguing study by Allen and colleagues (2002) had pet owners perform complex mental math problems for an interviewer. Some participants were alone with the interviewer, some had a spouse or friend present and some had a pet in the room. Heart rate and blood pressure were measured as indicators of stress. Interestingly, the presence of the pet showed the least amount of stress for the participant. Researchers concluded that unconditional love given by a pet provides significant relief and support.

I hope you all have great social support in your lives. Sometimes, we need to actively seek that support for ourselves. New arrivals to the community, those who have lost a loved one, freshmen in college and many others would benefit from seeking out social connections.

Great places such as our local senior centers, clubs, schools and churches can help build those relationships. Finally, everyone can offer the easiest and most basic form of social support: a smile. There are numerous health benefits related to smiling, but I will save that topic for another day.

Lynn Urban is president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Colorado.

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