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December 1, 2014 at 7:55 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Study Shows Strong Family Bonds Improve Health Outlook and Increase Life Span!

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

This past week, people in America sat down with loved ones and gave thanks. Looking past the feast and other traditions, the holiday promotes personal reflection on those things we see as blessings in our life. For most, those deep, meaningful things revolve around a comfortable environment, health and family. This year however, I was reflecting on how the later two seem so intimately related for many. As a family physician, treating individuals while also treating families, mindful of the influences each has on one another, I can tell you that family bears a tremendous influence on our health.  

Here's how and why:

Defining Family

As a scientist, it's easy (and expected) that I would  want to delve into genetics as I evaluate the health of my patients. Cancers, diabetes, and heart disease, among other diseases, do have genetic links that can manifest as potential legacy for the people I treat. However, I want to step away from this notion when I discuss family in this installment.

Here, I'd like to focus on "the ties that bind" a family. Family members reach beyond bloodline. They are married in, born, adopted, and simply brought in under a bond -  sometimes identified with a sir name, but more importantly, I think, an understanding.

Pillars of Support

With illness comes infirmity and with this infirmity, weakness and struggle brings need into our lives. Our lives, like well-oiled machines sometimes breakdown and cause crisis. Yet, time and again, I see family step in to keep the machine of a life running smoothly. While it may be a surgeon who performs a necessary procedure, it is typically family who ensure the patient is fed their needs are met. And while it may be an obstetrician who delivers a baby to a growing family, it is that family who tuck the child into bed at an appropriate time and ensure they're ready for school the next morning. It may be me who prescribes a medicine, but it is often family who lovingly ensures it is taken.

I have seen wonderful examples of support not only in nurturing illness, but also in encouraging health. Family often forms the foundation in the daily struggle to break habits such as smoking. Family shares the day-to-day battle to control weight or improve eating habits. Often, these changes are accomplished together.

More often than not, it's family who puts the "care" in healthcare. Their support is often the make-or-break when it comes to recovery. As a physician, I'd be a fool not to be attentive to the presence (or lack of this support) in my patients.

A Sense of Belonging

Beyond the physical support that a family provides, the bond in and of itself is a factor in health. Persons with strong social bonds fare better in their health and even live longer!

One study, pooling the findings of 148 smaller studies to encompass over 300,000 persons, found that those with poor social ties had around 50% higher odds of dying within their follow up period than those with strong social ties. This further translated into about 7.5 years difference in longevity - this was about the same mortality difference found with smoking! (1) 

Research as part of The Flourishing Family Project has further revealed that having siblings reduces loneliness and improves emotional well-being. (2)  Families can provide that unconditional support which allows us to navigate life's challenges with self-confidence and assurance that aid is there if needed.

Mentoring a Legacy

In recent months, I've had two recently retired couples in my practice move - not to a tropical destination, but rather to the close proximity of their grandchildren. It was telling to see their excitement and anticipation of seeing their grandkids on a regular, perhaps daily basis. As thier physician, I was very happy knowing these cross-generational relationships provide countless health benefits.

For children, the mere presence of parents and grandparents in their lives provide benefits.  Beyond emotional health, parental/grandparental support translates into lower rates of obesity, better school performance, and healthier choices regarding sexual activity.

For parents and grandparents, benefits exist too.  Longitudinal studies show that adults who parent children experience more longevity. For the next generation up, grandchildren provide a tangible legacy and opportunity to make an impact with more available time, wisdom and patience.

Negative Impacts

While a loving, supportive family provides countless benefits however, it is true that not every family acts as it should. Traditions of abuse, neglect, or unhealthy practices can set a person up for a lifetime of struggle they must work to overcome.  Unhealthy dependent relationships can add to stress and cycle repeatedly.  Recognition of this negative impact is key in limiting unhealthy exposures.

Harnessing Health from Your Family

Maximizing health as it relates to family affiliations involves defining family and building upon the positive attributes. Geographic proximity and increased time together  because of it increases benefits. Obviously, if illness and care needs arise, family just down the street is more likely to take up support than family on the other side of the country.

In the spirit that the best way to receive, is to first give, work to enhance bonds through providing support for your family members emotionally and physically. This will, in turn, return benefit  to you personally! Finally, if you identify negative influences from persons you identify as your family, limit your associations and exposures to keep yourself in a healthy place.

While family may give us genetic traits which help or hinder our health, family associations also impact our health tremendously.  For your health's sake, nurture positive relationships with your loved ones.

Live, and live well.


1. TIME: Recipe for Longevity: No Smoking, Lots of Friends

2. Flourishing Families: What is the "Flourishing Families" Study?

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