Social and Emotional Support and its Implication for Health

Maija Reblin; Bert N Uchino

Disclosures

Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2008;21(2):201-205. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Purpose of review: Recent research findings from selected publications focusing on links between social support and physical health are summarized.
Recent findings: Current research is extending our understanding of the influences of social support on health. Many epidemiological studies have concentrated on further linking measures of social support to physical health outcomes. A few studies are now moving into newer areas, such as emphasizing health links with support receipt and provision. Researchers are also interested in outlining relevant pathways, including potential biological (i.e. inflammation) and behavioral (i.e. health behaviors) mechanisms. Interventions attempting to apply basic research on the positive effects of social support are also widespread. Although the longer term effects of such interventions on physical health remain to be determined, such interventions show promise in influencing the quality of life in many chronic disease populations.
Summary: Recent findings often show a robust relationship in which social and emotional support from others can be protective for health. The next generation of studies must explain, however, why this relationship exists and the specificity of such links. This research is in its infancy but will be crucial in order to better tailor support interventions that can impact on physical health outcomes.

During the last 30 years, researchers have shown great interest in the phenomenon of social support, particularly in the context of health. Prior work has found that those with high quantity or quality of social networks have a decreased risk of mortality in comparison with those who have low quantity or quality of social relationships, even after statistically controlling for baseline health status.[1] In fact, social isolation itself was identified as an independent major risk factor for all-cause mortality.[2] Current research has focused on expanding several areas of knowledge in this field. These include social-support influences on morbidity, mortality, and quality of life in chronic disease populations, understanding the mechanisms responsible for such associations, and how we might apply such findings to design relevant interventions.

It is important to note that social support in these studies is operationalized in several different ways. Most broadly, support can be conceptualized in terms of the structural components (e.g. social integration: being a part of different networks and participating socially[3]) and the functional components (e.g. different types of transactions between individuals, such as emotional support or favors[4]). How the functional components are measured often varies between studies; transactions may be summarized by actual support received (often ascertained by asking the support providers[5]), perceived support received or available,[6] or the discrepancy between perceived support and received support.[7] Support is often further broken down into different types-for instance, instrumental support and emotional support-as people often have preferences for different types of aid depending on the circumstances. This diversity of ways in which support is defined is important and can provide greater specificity (context) to research findings.

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