Social support, relationships can have life-saving effects, according to BYU research

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PROVO, Utah (ABC4) – Research at Brigham Young University has found “concrete” evidence on the importance of relationships that could have a major impact on the future of treatment in the medical world.

“The data conclusively shows that patients’ lives are saved when they receive needed support,” BYU professor Tim Smith tells ABC4. “This research has the potential to change modern medicine for the positive.”

Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who co-authored the research along with Smith, agrees that the value of having a helping hand alongside a patient receiving all kinds of care from a healthcare provider makes a significant difference in terms of increasing survivability. The newest published research builds on previous work done by Holt-Lunstand, which found living in isolation or having low social interaction can be as harmful to humans as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, and can be more dangerous than obesity.

She hopes this better understanding gained by BYU’s findings can be acknowledged by both patients and providers and will be realized by increases in support groups or patient advocates in the healthcare system.

“I think this evidence shows that not only do individuals need to take their social relationships and connections very seriously as part of a healthy lifestyle, but this is also really important for the recognition of medical and healthcare professionals to similarly recognize just how important this is for overall health,” Holt-Lunstad says.

To arrive at the conclusion that support needs to be a vital part of a person’s process in the healthcare system, data from over 100 controlled trials involving 40,000 patients was collected and analyzed. Patients who had psychosocial support, such as group meetings or family sessions, in addition to the physical medical treatments, had a 29% increase in survival probability.

Smith, who has a background in statistics in addition to psychological counseling, says it makes a lot of sense to have a person in a support role to assist the patient in their recovery. Support groups of folks who are going through similar ailments can also be effective in extending survival for patients with terminal illnesses or who are nervous of the treatment process in general.

Often times, having another person there to hold the patient accountable for their own treatment or to provide validation for their concerns is a major gamechanger, according to Smith.

“Something like testicular cancer, where it’s kind of an embarrassing topic to talk about, are you going to find out from other people specifically what you need to do? Probably not,” Smith says. “But if the hospital or clinic offers a testicle cancer support group or support network, or some type of website where people can go and chat and ask questions of each other. You’re probably going to do that.”

Smith continues to add social support intervention can save 5% to 10% of patient lives, a number he calls “remarkable.” He also cites another study that found people who participate in religious activities can also benefit to a large degree.

“Humans are biological and social and emotional, and spiritual and intellectual,” Smith explains. “So anything that fosters more abilities or coping strengths, improves a patient’s survival.”

The realization that loneliness and low social interaction can be devastating for many reasons came to a head during the pandemic, as quarantine and social distancing took a heavy toll on Utahns, Americans, and human beings worldwide.

Holt-Lunstad’s wish is that a better appreciation for the importance of human connections in healthcare will be a takeaway from the collective experience.

“I’m sure medical and health care professionals, from pediatrics to geriatrics, across the lifespan, across specialties across settings have seen patients who either have concerns for themselves or concerns for their loved ones and may have felt somewhat helpless,” she says. “I hope that the pandemic has helped to raise awareness of just how important social connections are not only to our well-being but to our actual health and survival.”

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