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Alicia Wang/Sun Sketch Editor

February 14, 2019

When Love is the Doctor – Cornell Research Reveals Health Benefits of Being in a Relationship

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Whether it is through Tinder, Bumble or the Cornell algorithm, Perfect Match, it seems like everyone is looking for love this winter; and rightly so! Chocolate and gushy stuff aside, according to Cornell’s Department of Human Development, personal or romantic relationships can also provide significant health benefits.

Prof. Anthony Ong, human development, investigates the ties between human health and relationships in the Cornell Human Health Labs. Ong and his colleagues seek to uncover the effect of relationships on health and the psychological and biological mechanisms behind these effects.

According to Ong’s research, beyond just feeling happier, having human connections can help you sleep better, be more productive and reduce the risk of diseases related to aging. It’s not just about finally having a date for Valentine’s Day this year — being in a relationship has quantifiable benefits on mental and physical health.

Existing research already demonstrates the link between one’s social environment and health, but the mechanisms underlying this correlation remain unclear. As ongoing research increasingly points to social wellness as a factor in maintaining physical and mental health, more emphasis has been placed on identifying the core features of interpersonal relationships.

Studies in the Relationships Lab demonstrate a tie between quality personal connection and decreased stress. When asked about the motivation behind his research, Ong pointed to stress levels of older, more socially isolated adults as a significant public health concern.

In his 2011 study, Loneliness Accentuates Age Differences in Cardiovascular Responses to Social Evaluative Threat, Ong measured cardiovascular reactivity to stressful events across different ages and levels of social isolation and connectedness.

“The recovery time of the lonely older adults, on average, was so delayed, they did not return to baseline levels during the two-hour follow up period,” Ong said.

In contrast, individuals in Ong’s study who reported having someone to turn to experienced faster cardiovascular recovery. This suggests a correlation between social connectedness and reduced daily stress levels.

In a study from last year, Perceived Partner Responsiveness, Daily Negative Affect Reactivity, and All-Cause Mortality: A 20-Year Longitudinal Study, Ong and his colleagues tracked the health of 1,208 adults with spouses or live-in partners for over 20 years.

The participants  — who started at ages from 25 to 74 —  took part in a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults. Participants who reported a significant drop in partner responsiveness over the first decade also reported more negative reactions to common daily stresses. It was these unpleasant reactions like fear, frustration and sadness that predicted a greater likelihood of death by the end of the study

Ong emphasized that loneliness and responsiveness are all about perception: In romantic relationships, partners offer one another security and a way to regulate their emotions, which lessens stress.

“A relationship provides an effective way of regulating your own emotions and your partner helps just by being present. In everyday friendships as well as our romantic relationships, having an ally or just one person who really gets us can go a long way,” Ong said.

When asked about his thoughts on Valentine’s Day, Ong offers some simple advice:

“You don’t have to be in a relationship to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Let people know you appreciate them. Smile at someone on the TCAT. Shovel your neighbor’s walkway. Host a potluck. Call your mom.”