While recent research has shown that loneliness can play a role in early death, psychologists are also concerned with the mechanisms by which social relationships and close personal ties affect health. A special issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association, offers an overview of the science and makes the case for psychological scientists to work together to make close relationships a public health priority.

“The articles in this special issue represent state-of-the-art work on the central issues in the study of close relationships and health. They draw from relationship science and health psychology, two areas of scientific inquiry with independent histories and distinct domains,” special issue editor Christine Dunkel Schetter, PhD, wrote in the introduction. “The goal of this special issue is to bridge the gap between these two specialties to improve the quality and usefulness of future research and practice.”

Articles focus on topics including how healthy relationships early in life affect physical and mental health in childhood and beyond; the role of intimate relationships in coronary heart disease; the need to focus on partners when treating someone with chronic disease; and the increasingly complex biological pathways involved linking relationships to health.

“The challenge remains to translate existing and future knowledge into interventions to improve social relationships for the benefit of physical and mental health,” wrote Dunkel Schetter, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Among the articles:

“Advancing Social Connection as a Public Health Priority in the United States” by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, Brigham Young University; Theodore Robles, PhD, University of California Los Angeles; and David Sbarra, PhD, University of Arizona.

This article outlines the potential and promise of elevating social connection as a public health priority. A robust body of scientific evidence suggests that being in high quality close relationships and feeling socially connected are associated with decreased risk of mortality. Social isolation, loneliness and relationship discord are well-established risk factors for poor health. Despite the importance of social connection for good health, government agencies, health care providers and health care funders have been slow to recognize social connection as a public health priority, according to the authors. They give an overview of the extent of the problem (as many as 43 percent of U.S. adults older than 60 experience frequent or intense loneliness) and provide suggestions on how to integrate social relationships into public health priorities by researching and developing interventions to improve social connection.

Contact: Julianne Holt-Lunstad at julianne_holt-lunstad@byu.edu or Theodore Robles at robles@psych.ucla.edu.

“Interpersonal Mechanisms Linking Close Relationships to Health” by Paula Pietromonaco, PhD, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Nancy Collins, PhD, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Close relationships can protect and promote health in various ways. This article provides an overview for understanding how interpersonal processes influence health and disease. For example, in times of stress, relationships can help protect against its negative effects, while in more peaceful times, relationships can foster positive emotions, personal growth and health-promoting behaviors. The authors also examine the negative health effects of social disconnection through hostile relationships or social rejection, as well as what is known about factors that influence these effects, such as emotion and biological factors.

Contact: Paula Pietromonaco at monaco@psych.umass.edu or Nancy Collins at nancy.collins@psych.ucsb.edu.

“Incorporating the Cultural Diversity of Family and Close Relationships into the Study of Health” by Belinda Campos, PhD, University of California, Irvine, and Heejung Kim, PhD, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Culture — whether ethnic, regional, social class or religion — influences close relationships in important ways. A nuanced understanding of cultural variation in psychological processes can inform how individuals perceive their relationships, what they expect from them and how relationships affect health. This article explores two distinct cultures (East Asian and Latino) to highlight how relationships, and the link of relationships with health, can vary by culture. The development of strategies to increase social connections requires that cultural variation be considered to arrive at future research and practices that can maximally benefit all people.

Contact: Belinda Campos at bcampos@uci.edu.

“Childhood Close Family Relationships and Health” by Edith Chen, PhD, and Gregory Miller, PhD, Northwestern University, and Gene Brody, PhD, University of Georgia.

The relationships that children and adolescents have early in life can have important ramifications for health across the life span. Emotionally significant, comforting relationships during childhood are linked to better physical health from infancy to adulthood. Close family relationships can mitigate the impact of adversity on physical health across the life span. The authors propose a model to examine how aspects of family relationships — such as support, conflict, obligations and parenting behaviors — evolve over time and how these characteristics play a role in protecting against the health effects of childhood adversity.

Contact: Edith Chen at edith.chen@northwestern.edu.

“Close Social Ties and Health in Later Life: Strengths and Vulnerabilities” by Karen Rook, PhD, and Susan Charles, PhD, University of California, Irvine.

The world is aging at an unprecedented rate, with older adults representing the fastest growing segment of the population in most economically developed and developing countries. This article provides an overview of the research on strengths and weaknesses of social ties later in life. For instance, older adults generally report emotionally satisfying and supportive social ties, and they take steps to minimize negative social interactions. Yet, older adults can also experience hostile or ambivalent relationships or the loss of close relationships through death. The authors also discuss changing demographic trends, such as the increased reliance on non-family members for social support, and suggest future directions for research.

Contact: Karen Rook at ksrook@uci.edu.

“Intimate Relationships, Individual Adjustment, and Coronary Heart Disease: Implications of Overlapping Associations in Psychosocial Risk” by Timothy Smith, PhD, and Brian Baucom, PhD, University of Utah. Being married or in a similar intimate relationship generally reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. However, the quality of these relationships matter, as strained or disrupted relationships are associated with an increased risk. Relationship quality as a risk factor is often studied separately from individual personality and emotional risk factors for heart disease, such as anger or depression, but these factors can also affect the quality of the relationship. In this article, the authors suggest an alternative, integrated approach to research that combines relationship and individual factors to better understand their influence on the risk and course of coronary heart disease.

Contact: Timothy Smith at tim.smith@psych.utah.edu.

“Integrative Pathways Linking Close Family Ties to Health: A Neurochemical Perspective” by Bert Uchino, PhD, University of Utah, and Baldwin Way, PhD, Ohio State University.

The quality of one’s family life, for better or for worse, has been linked to physical health. As research increasingly documents these links, an important next step is to refine theoretical models and understand the biological mechanisms involved. This article uses the oxytocin system as an example of how complex biological pathways can link positive and negative family relationships to physical health. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that is released in response to close relationships and helps facilitate bonding. But oxytocin can have other effects on health. It inhibits release of the hormone cortisol, reducing the negative effects of stress. There is also evidence, in animal models, that it can protect against heart attacks, high blood pressure and even obesity.

Contact: Bert Uchino at bert.uchino@psych.utah.edu or Baldwin Way at way.37@osu.edu.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes nearly 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.

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