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Poor social integration = poor health

There are many benefits to being supported by a strong social network. But can a bigger friend base actually make you healthier? New research from proves that social relationships do have a positive influence our physical wellbeing.

In a recent study published in The , Concordia psychology professor tracks a group of international students who experience major change in social integration following a move to Montreal. The results show that those who managed to build a better support network are healthier overall. The proof is in their heart rates.

Over a five-month period, participants responded to questionnaires that detailed how well they were doing at integrating socially, as well as how lonely they felt. Gouin and his Concordia co-authors Stephanie Fitzpatrick and Biru Zhou, also monitored participants’ heart rates to detect changes in what’s known as high-frequency (HF-HRV).

Why the interest in heart rate fluctuations? Because it’s a marker of how well your parasympathetic nervous system is functioning. “Other research has shown that individuals with a lower heart rate variability are at increased risk for the development of poor health, including greater risk for cardiac diseases. Therefore, decreases in heart rate variability are bad for you,” explains Gouin.

The study showed that immigrants who were able to form friendships and integrate new social networks during their first five months in Canada had increases in heart rate variability, while those who remained socially isolated over time showed a reduction in their heart rate variability.

“In the weeks and months that follow a major move, people often find it hard to make new friends and establish a solid social network,” says Gouin, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Chronic Stress and Health. “This study proves that such prolonged social isolation can have a negative effect on physical health by impacting our parasympathetic functioning. That applies not just to international students, but to anyone moving to a new country or city.”

What can new immigrants do to help keep their HF-HRV functioning at high levels so that their autonomic nervous systems keep up the good work? “The message is clear: reach out to other people, the more quickly you manage to integrate socially in your new home, the healthier you’ll be. It’s easier said than done – but it’s worth it,” says Gouin.


Social Integration Prospectively Predicts Changes in Heart Rate Variability Among Individuals Undergoing Migration Stress, Jean-Philippe Gouin Ph.D., Biru Zhou M.A., Stephanie Fitzpatrick Ph.D., The Annals of Behavioral Medicine, DOI: 10.1007/s12160-014-9650-7, published 12 September 2014.

This study was supported by grants from the Canada Research Chair program as well as the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Source: Concordia University