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Social Factors Health - Social Support

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Social support includes resources, either practical or emotional, provided by others. A person's social network, which includes the number of relationships and the frequency of contact with others, provides information about how socially integrated an individual is, but does not give information about the quality of the relationships. More in-depth measures of social support include whether the type of support is emotional and provides a feeling of being cared for, or whether it is instrumental and provides practical help with tasks or financial aid. Further, the quality of the interaction indicates whether the social relationship is positive and helpful or negative and conflictual.

Social relationships have a powerful effect on physical and mental health, and on mortality. In one of the earliest studies to note this association, Berkman and Syme (1979) found that even after taking into consideration levels of self-reported health, a social network index comprised of social ties with a spouse, family, and friends; church membership, and other group membership predicted mortality within the next nine years. For people between sixty and sixty-nine years of age, the relative risk of dying over the next nine years for the most isolated men was 1.8 times the risk associated with the most connected men. For women in this age group, those with the least connections had three times the relative risk of those with the most connections. Later studies took into consideration baseline levels of health and found that social integration or isolation added to a prediction of later mortality.

Dean, Kolody, and Wood (1990) found that older individuals who reported higher levels of care and concern from spouses, friends, and children had lower levels of depression than those who experienced little social support. Interestingly, those who reported low levels of expressive support from adult children and spouses had higher levels of depression than those who did not have children or a spouse. This suggests that it is not only the presence of a social tie, but also the quality of the relationship that affects mental health.

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