Something Happened in 1985 That
Changed Our Health and Friendships
for the Worse
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April 6, 2018

By Susan Callahan, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

If, like me, you're old enough to have shoes that are older
than some of your neighbors, then you know that most
years start to blur together.  We remember the years that
start the sea change in our cultural lives: 1968, for the
assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther
King, 2001 for the World Trade Center 911 attacks,1969
for the moon landing, 2008 for the Great Recession.  But
what about 1985? Nothing, right? Same, here.

Yet, for reasons that are only now becoming clear, 1985
was a watershed year in our national culture. For it was in
that year that a trend started that would shape our health
for many years. Scientists have learned that starting in
1985 until 2004 an d perhaps beyond, our social networks
shifted. By "social networks", I mean the real kind, in real
life, not the ones that exist online only.  Before 1985, when
asked how many people you have to confide in, most
Americans answered "3".  From 1985 to 2004, the number
of Americans who said that they have no one to confide in

What started to change  in 1985? And how does the
change affect our health? Can we do anything now to
reverse the trend?

The Survey That Started in All

Have you ever heard of the General Social Survey? Most
people haven't. Here's an obscure example of your tax
dollars at work.  The National Science Foundation, funded
by you and me, provides money to an organization based in
Chicago called the "National Opinion Research Center" at
the University of Chicago.

That Opinion Research Center began taking what it called
the General Social Survey back in 1972.  

The Number of Real Social Connections Is Shrinking

Among the interesting findings from the Survey is that,
comparing where we were in 1985 to where we were in
2009, the average American has 2 people in whom he or
she can confide. When things go wrong, we have two
people we can turn to and talk things over.  That set of
"two" includes spouses or other significant others,
children, work associates, friends.  

When you step back and think about it, that result alone is
striking. Of all the people we know, from all the settings we
find ourselves in, most of us have only two people we
really trust  with our most sensitive issues.  That "two"
(actually 2.08) compares with nearly three in 1985.

So, we lost a confidant from 1985 to 2004. That shrank our
social network of confidants by a third.

What is clear is that we have a small circle of trusted
confidants and that circle is shrinking.

How a Shrinking Social Circle Damages Your Health

We've written before about the dangers of social isolation,
especially among the elderly. Our mobile society
encourages people to move. We move away to college, to
new jobs, to towns of our new husbands or wives, to be
closer to grandchildren, to downscale our living costs.  All
of these forces pull against social networks that may have
taken decades to build.

The toll on our social calender is clear. Less obvious is what
this increasing social isolation does to our health.

One 2001 study from Duke University Medical Center tied
social isolation with worsening outcomes from
cardiovascular disease. The study, led by Dr. Beverly
Brummett, found something striking. Among people with
heart disease, those with three of fewer people in their
social circle had a 2.43 times higher risk of dying than
people with more social contacts.

And here is something perhaps even more unsettling. Even
after taking out the influence of heart disease, those with
fewer social contacts had more than 200% higher risk of
dying from any and
all causes.

That means social isolation worsens your chances of dying
once you're diagnose with cancer, Alzheimer's disease,
kidney disease, diabetes -- anything.

Another study, of 308,849 people; found that having a
strong social circle increases your odds of surviving
sickness by 50%. Led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham
Young University, this 2010 study was a massive
meta-study, which drew conclusion after analyzing data
from 148 other studies. This study concluded that being
socially isolated is more damaging to your health and
survival from sickness than even consuming alcohol or

Being Hugged Even by Strangers Reduces Your Risk of
Getting Sick

There is power in hugs. Warm physical contact, even from
strangers has been shown to reduce your risk of getting

In 2015, scientists from Carnegie Mellon University
conducted a study on how social support networks affect
our immune system? They handed out a questionnaire with
questions designed to reveal the strength of the
participants social network. Here  are the 12 questions they
asked. You might want to think of how you would answer
them as you read along, because what they found was that
those people having stringer social support had less severe
colds or no colds:

1. If I wanted to go on a trip for a day (for example, to the
country or mountains), I would have a hard time finding
someone to go with me.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

2. I feel that there is no one I can share my most private
worries and fears with.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

3. If I were sick, I could easily find someone to help me
with my daily chores.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

4. There is someone I can turn to for advice about handling
problems with my family.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

5. If I decide one afternoon that I would like to go to a
movie that evening, I could easily find someone to go with
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

6. When I need suggestions on how to deal with a personal
problem, I know someone I can turn to.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

7. I don't often get invited to do things with others.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

8. If I had to go out of town for a few weeks, it would be
difficult to find someone who would look after my house or
apartment (the plants, pets, garden, etc.).
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

9. If I wanted to have lunch with someone, I could easily
find someone to join me.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

10. If I was stranded 10 miles from home, there is
someone I could call who could come and get me.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

11. If a family crisis arose, it would be difficult to find
someone who could give me good advice about how to
handle it.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

12. If I needed some help in moving to a new house or
apartment, I would have a hard time finding someone to
help me.
1. definitely false
2. probably false
3. probably true
4. definitely true

If you are one of the lucky people who answer these
questions with probably false, then you have won a lottery
of sorts. You have a lower chance of getting colds or the
flu and a higher chance of surviving just about any sickness
or disease that comes your way.

People who get a hug -- even a hug from a stranger -- are
almost immunized from colds and flu and have far higher
chances of surviving any other sickness.

So, What Happened in 1985 That Damaged Our Social

No one knows what happened beginning in 1985 that
started to undermine our social circles. But I have a theory.
First of all, whatever happened is so profound that it was
akin to a nuclear blast going off in our social support
structure. Also, whatever happened is general, because it
affected young and old, highly educated and not, rich and
poor and people of all races and political stripes.

What kind of force could have such an effect? I had a
hunch that the pervasive influence of online social
networks played a role. We know that the unprecedented
use of apps and smartphones have eroded face-to-face
relationships even as they have increased the number of
contacts we make with other people. But the smartphone is
not to blame -- it was only introduced on June 29, 2009,
almost 5 years after the range of years covered on the
National Social Survey.

The decline also cannot be attributed to Facebook --- it was
launched on February 4, 2004. And there is evidence that
Facebook has actually made it easier to keep in touch with
long lost friends.

We may never know what started to tear at our social
structures in 1985. But we better get interested in finding
out. For whatever it is, it is leaving us all more vulnerable to
sickness and early death.


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