Feeling supported by your community is important, but a new study shows it doesn't mean much if you're not able to return the favor.

It's long been believed that feeling supported by friends and family can improve your mental and physical health, but new research suggests that taking it a step farther and giving support to loved ones also has its own set of health benefits. According to a study highlighted by ScienceDaily and conducted by researchers at Ohio State University, providing social assistance to the important people in your life can reduce inflammation—an important health indicator. "It may be that when people believe they can give more support to friends and family, these relationships are especially rewarding and stress-relieving, which reduces inflammation," says Baldwin Way, researcher and associate professor at Ohio State. 

To obtain their findings, researchers used data from 1,054 participants in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States. Their pool of subjects were all healthy adults between 34 and 94 years old. The participants were asked to complete a survey that measured their social integration by asking various questions, including if they were married or living with a partner, how often they contacted family and friends, and how often they attended social groups or activities. The participants also reported how much they believed they could rely on friends, family, or their spouse when needed.

couple drinking coffee on steps outside
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Two years after taking the questionnaire, participants returned for a series of blood tests, including one that tested for a marker of systemic inflammation in the body. According to Way, higher levels of that specific marker are associated with increased risk of many diseases that are among the top killers of Americans, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. "That's why we thought it was important to find out why previous studies found such weak evidence for the link between social support and lower inflammation," says Way.

Although similar research has been conducted in the past, most have been under the scope of receiving social support rather than giving it. The key to this study is that it also questioned participants on how much they're willing to provide social assistance to loved ones. Researchers found that positive social relationships were associated with lower inflammation only among participants who said they were able to give support to family and friends, regardless of if they felt supported in return. This connection was especially strong among women. "This reflects the idea that social relationships are often seen as more important for women than for men," says lead study author Tao Jiang. "But our sample size was not large enough to show that conclusively. We need to study that issue further."


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