Living among a tight-knit group of close relatives is best for our health as we age, right? Actually, in many cases, the opposite is true.
Social isolation and loneliness have long been associated with poor health and worse outcomes, on par with smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and inactivity. But being ensconced in too tight a family network may not be optimal, either. For someone experiencing a health crisis, it’s better to have more weak ties to people who don’t know each other, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Nature.
“We’re finding if you’ve got a lot of weak ties or lack of connections (between acquaintances), that actually affords you an advantage,” said Amar Dhand, the paper’s lead author and an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University.
People with more extensive, weaker ties tend to arrive at the hospital sooner after a stroke, and to recover faster, the paper found. The key seems to be the diversity that comes with knowing many different kinds of people.
With a greater variety of acquaintances, someone with stroke symptoms would have more of a chance of being in contact with people who can share novel information, including an acquaintance who might urge them to go to the hospital.
The paper urges doctors to consider a patient’s social network in the same way they would with factors such as blood pressure or weight.
“What I’d like this paper to do is to have physicians and other health care workers rethink the patient as not a solitary individual sitting in front of you but as a person who’s embedded in a social web, and that network can be understood by you if you take the time to ask a few questions,” he said.
It matters whether that web is small and tight or large and loose. The researchers found that people who arrived at hospitals within 6 hours of having stroke symptoms had larger networks with more disconnected acquaintances.
The findings belie common wisdom about what’s best for a patient, even among medical professionals.
“As doctors we think of a strong family unit of support system as really important to patients’ health,” Dhand said. But in the case of a patient experiencing a mild stroke, that model can be less useful “because you’re not forced to go outside of your safe zone,” he said. “I call it sort of the helicopter family; people around you are saying, ‘No, grandpa, stay where you are, I’ll get it for you.’”
In fact, the proverbial little old lady who lives alone might actually be in the best position to get prompt treatment, he said.
“I just saw a patient yesterday in clinic who is 81 years old, she is a widow, and…she has one of the most extensive social networks that we’ve seen; she has 26 different people, many of whom are women like her, and she takes care of a lot of them, picking up groceries for one, checking in on one,” Dhand said. “I don’t want to state that the tight family network is harmful, but it may not be the optimal network structure for all illnesses.”