Are the health benefits of romantic love real?

It's generally accepted that loneliness causes a number of health problems. Humans are social animals, and being deprived of others' company is less an inconvenience than downright dangerous. Just living alone increases your risk of death by 32%, and in men social isolation increases the risk of death from heart or lung problems by 90%.

Indeed, men generally have worse outcomes when socially isolated, in part because they're more likely to make poor health choices (overeat, smoke, drink too much, skip doctors' appointments, and behave violently) than women – but also because they're more vulnerable to illness. Both sets of problems can be tempered by strong social relationships: having friends or a partner who'll exercise with you, make you go to the doctor, and bring you medicine when you're ill is an obvious health advantage.

Irrespective of gender, a lack of social relationships increases your chance of coronary heart disease by 32%, and your risk of stroke by 29%. A US-wide study found that social isolation is just as correlated with all-cause mortality (death in general) as smoking cigarettes. That bears repeating: if you're socially isolated, you're just as likely to die prematurely as if you were a smoker.  It's not a good picture.

But health problems such as strokes, heart disease, and other cardiovascular issues might seem some distance away for the under-50s amongst us. Is there any reason to think relationships – let alone romantic relationships – have a significant impact on millennial health? The answer is pretty definitive: oh yes.

Before we dive into the health problems caused by loneliness/isolation in younger populations, it's worth noting that even if you don't experience any of those problems now, you might nonetheless be storing them up for later: social isolation often contributes to chronic stress, which builds up over the course of one's life to increase risk for pretty much all the problems we've mentioned above. Fewer social connections in early life lead to worse health outcomes in later life, to at least an equal degree as diet and exercise. Robert Putnam puts it succinctly: joining and participating in any group cuts in half your odds of dying next year.

But storing up health problems for later isn't the only issue. One study on American undergraduates found that those experiencing loneliness also had worse sleep than non-lonely participants, and higher levels of biomarkers that indicate high blood pressure. Another found that lonely students had worse antibody responses to receiving a flu vaccine, with the effect size increasing according to how socially isolated they were. The lonely students also had higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone involved in helping regulate sleep. Finally, greater psychological stress, increased depressive symptoms, and increased anxiety have been found in lonely young adults.

The verdict is in; loneliness is bad. Probably worse than you thought. The good news, however, is that we possess extraordinary power to overcome these symptoms – and not just by expanding our friendship circles. Close relationships are particularly important: being happy with your marriage is as good for your health as eating fruit and vegetables, and the effect may be even stronger in women.

Of course, sometimes no relationship is better than a bad one. But even romantic relationships in which partners have insecure attachment styles – that is, they feel unable to depend on their partner, or receive conflicting emotional feedback from them – can still prove beneficial overall, provided partners understand each other's feelings.

The most interesting studies in this field typically focus on adults at middle age and above, because that's the group most likely to be in long-term, stable relationships of the type characterised by marriage. It's also a group more likely to experience health problems. But there's no reason to think that the benefits are limited to Gen X or baby boomers, and it's possible that entering a stable relationship whilst young has a protective effect that lasts over time. In fact, it's what we'd expect: given how the negative effects of isolation can accumulate over time, wearing down our nervous systems, anything that mitigates those (at any point) is a good thing for our long-term health.

Something we know for sure is that romantic love is one of the best predictors of overall happiness. It beats exercise, intellectual stimulation, and good habits like not drinking or smoking too much. And we know that happiness is very, very good for our physical health; there are all sorts of connections between the two, but they can be summarised by the fact that happy people are just less likely to die in any given period. If romantic love predicts happiness, and happiness predicts health, romantic love also predicts health. In a neat illustration of this, romantic love and heart health are positively correlated.

That said, not just any romantic love will do. Passion, angst, and whirlwind romance can be wonderful things, but they don't always contribute to fulfilling relationships. From a health perspective, the romance you want is the steady, companionable kind that can weather a few storms and come out stronger. In fact, the mere state of being married is only very slightly related to happiness in later life, whereas marital satisfaction plays much more a significant role. A mediocre marriage (or long-term partnership) is slightly better than none, but a good, enduring relationship makes a substantial difference to our physical wellbeing.

The conclusion? If you want to look after your health, you can afford to worry a little less about diet and exercise – but a little more about your social (and especially romantic) relationships. Or, as we prefer to think about it, find love and you can eat more chips.

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