Grandma & Science Agree: Social Connections are Good for Your Health

There’s an expression in academia that goes something like, “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” The implication is that you should comprehend something so deeply that you can then transform your knowledge into such a simple explanation that even your grandma would grasp it. Understandably, some view this particular saying as insulting to grandmas. I laugh when I hear it, because my grandma is one of the most knowledgeable and intellectually-interested people I have ever met. So, for me, explaining something to my grandma is quite easy. Frankly, she does most of the work for me.

In honor of her birthday, I thought I’d share a major life lesson that my grandma has explained to me, rather than the other way around. My grandma is the type of person who really listens to people when they’re talking, pays attention to their stories, empathizes with them, and strives to connects fully with them. She makes an effort to nurture relationships with family and friends like no other person I’ve met. She took each of her 11 grandchildren on vacations just to have quality time and make special memories with all of us. Every other year, she rents out rooms for all of us near the ocean so that her children, grandchildren, and now her great-grand-children, can get together from different regions of the country and spend time together. She flies around the country to attend graduations, weddings, and school plays. She keeps in touch with friends and neighbors who she met decades ago through letters, phone calls, and Skype.

Anecdotally, these efforts seem to be very beneficial for our family’s health. Scientific research suggests that my grandma’s approach works for others too. Our lab’s research tends to specifically focus on the detrimental effects of loneliness and social isolation as related to poor mental health outcomes, particularly disordered eating and suicidal behavior. Research suggests that physical health is impacted by these factors as well. For example, a recent meta-analysis examining data from 70 different studies revealed that people who experienced loneliness and social isolation had a greater risk of dying during study follow-up periods than individuals who reported lower levels of loneliness and social isolation (the average follow up period was ~7 years). Importantly, the effects existed even when statistically accounting for other important factors, such as having health problems at baseline and smoking. The authors concluded, based on the evidence, that loneliness and social isolation should be listed as risk factors for public health concern along with other typically identified factors such as physical activity, diet, and substance abuse.

I’ll conclude by saying, thank you, grandma, for explaining it in a way that this academic could understand. Science agrees with your wisdom about the importance of nurturing relationships for a healthy life, and I am thankful to have a strong role model in mind as I try to understand and alleviate loneliness through my work.