If you want to live longer, love thy neighbor—and quit fighting with your friends, suggests a new study of nearly 10,000 Danish men and women. People with frequent worries, demands, or conflicts within their social circles have a higher risk of dying prematurely, say University of Copenhagen researchers, and they believe that stress-related health issues may play a role.
Strong social ties and healthy relationships are known to have protective effects, both mentally and physically, wrote the study authors in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. "Less is known," they added, "about the health consequences of stressful aspects of social relations."
To find out more, they quizzed study participants about how often their partners, relatives, friends, or neighbors made excess demands, prompted worries, or were a source of conflict. During the next 11 years, about 4 percent of the participants died—half from cancer, but also from heart disease or stroke, liver disease, accidents, and suicide.
Here's where it gets interesting: People who "always" or "often" experienced worries and demands from their partners were twice as likely to die compared with those who "seldom" had these complaints. So were those who often or always had conflicts with partners or friends. Those who said their children were frequent sources of worry or demands had a smaller increased risk of dying (about 50 percent), while regular conflict with neighbors was worst of all, tripling the risk.
More research is needed to explain this connection, the authors say, but the brain's response to stressful situations probably plays a role: It floods the body with the "fight or flight" hormone cortisol and triggers inflammation, which, over time, can compromise the immune system and contribute to chronic disease.
David Hauser, Ph.D., a psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University who was not involved in the study, calls the proposed link between relationship conflict and early death "ambitious," and cautions that there are many factors that can't be accounted for in an observational study like this one. But he does agree that stress is toxic to our health, especially when it involves the people closest to us.
"Across the medical field, from cancer to heart health to psychology, stress is always listed as a risk factor for making things worse," he says. "And relational stress is the hardest kind of stress to escape, because it affects all aspects of our life."
Say you have a fight with your spouse in the morning, he explains. Chances are you'll dwell on it at work, text or email about it during the day, and still have to deal with it when you get home at night.
The study results may also have to do with deeper emotional issues, the authors add: People with neurotic, angry, or moody personalities have been shown to have poorer health outcomes, for example, and presumably they are also more likely to report conflict with those around them.
Staying positive and avoiding stress are the best ways to protect yourself, says Hauser, but he admits that's easier said than done—especially when it comes to your immediate family and community. Your next best bet, he says, is to employ smart coping strategies—both by yourself and together within your social network.
"The primary antidote to conflict is empathy," he says. "Putting yourself in the other person's shoes and trying to understand where they're coming from can really help resolve an issue—or at least give you a better perspective and soften some of the negative emotions involved."