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Can reaching out to a friend or neighbour make you healthier?

It turns out that being sociable – even in small ways – has big benefits for your health. It can lift your mood, lower your stress levels and reduce loneliness. It’s good for your heart, your sleep, can influence how well you recover from illness, and even help you live longer.

In Just One Thing, Michael Mosley explores how and why reaching out in the simplest of ways – from sending a text to a friend to doing a good deed for a neighbour – really can have a positive impact on your life.

Loneliness is bad for us

“Social relationships really matter,” says psychologist Prof Pamela Qualter, from the University of Manchester. “We've shown again and again that loneliness has an impact on health.” It impacts our sleep, it impacts our cardiovascular health in the longer-term, and it even has an impact on conditions like diabetes.

Researchers found that it was satisfying relationships... that kept people happy and healthy throughout their lives.

Satisfying relationships keep us happy and healthy

The importance of relationships was demonstrated by one of the longest human studies ever carried out. In the 1930s, researchers recruited more than 700 men from Harvard and the surrounding area, and followed them for decades. They found that it was satisfying relationships, more than fame, money, social class or IQ, that kept people happy and healthy throughout their lives.

Having friends may protect your brain

When scientists investigated “superagers” – people in their 80s who have the memory skills of those several decades younger – they found that they had far more positive social relationships in their lives.

And in a Swedish study, which followed 1,200 older people, it was found that those living alone or without close social ties, were at greater risk of developing dementia. Even occasional visits with friends kept the risk of the disease down.

"Do very simple things. It's a nod of the head, it's a smile."

Professor Pamela Qualter explains the importance of small interactions on your health.

Having a diverse social network can help you fight off infections

Scientists who deliberately infected healthy volunteers with a cold virus found that those with a rich diversity of social ties were four times less likely to develop a cold than those who were less outgoing. And if they did get a cold, it wasn’t as bad.

Even interactions with people at the train station or the person making your coffee can be beneficial.

Social connections may even help you live longer! When scientists analysed results from nearly 150 different studies they found that those with the strongest social relationships had the greatest life expectancy.

“Simple” relationships matter too

It’s not just about having close relationships. You also benefit if you have a wide range of social contacts, including neighbours, people at work and others in the wider community.

Even the interactions you might have with people at the train station or the person making your coffee can be beneficial. “Very simple relationships actually matter quite a lot. Just feeling like you're connecting,” says Prof Qualter.

Virtual connections have a role to play

Studies suggest we need touch in our everyday lives and it releases hormones that make us feel good. But when seeing people in person is hard, meeting virtually can really help. “For people who are not able to engage face-to-face physically with others, social media is great,” says Prof Qualter. “It enables you to be able to meet others, to engage in conversations, to have that connection.”

Start small if you feel daunted

If you feel daunted about reaching out, Prof Qualter advises starting slowly and doing very simple things. “It's a nod of the head, it's a smile, it’s a hello to somebody you pass by on the street. It's about engaging with other people.”

Another way to engage with others is to offer support. “You might do something very tangible like put out the bin for your neighbours,” suggests Prof Qualter.

So, why don’t you ring that friend you haven’t seen for ages or even knock on a neighbour’s door? You might find that other people are just as pleased to connect with you as you are with them…

To find out more about the benefits of social interaction, reach out and tune in to Just One Thing on BBC Sounds.