Updated 6th October 2022
How are social habits connected to health?
● The hidden aspects of health
● Get to know what’s normal for you
ZOE’s focus has always been on understanding and maximizing health for everyone, whether that’s through the ZOE Health Study or our work on nutrition and the microbiome.
We’re now broadening out to look at other health conditions, using our unique data-driven approach to tackle some of the biggest health challenges we face today, including cancer, heart disease and dementia.
Together with our study contributors, we’ll be investigating how our lives shape our health, immunity and wellbeing, based around five interconnected strands of health:
● Physical activity
● Social and health habits
The hidden aspects of health
Some aspects of what makes a healthy life, such as diet and physical activity, get more attention than others. But there are other elements that contribute to feeling well and staying healthy that don’t get spoken about so much.
In this article, we’ll delve into these more hidden aspects of health, which include our connections with others, practicing good hygiene, and the many habits and routines that make up our daily lives.
Feeling connected to others is an important part of what it is to be human. As a social species, we thrive off our connections, which are important to our development, as well as our physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Social connections are known to be particularly important for our mental health. Social connectedness is an important psychological resource, particularly in times of need, and has been found to be a strong predictor of mental health.
Although declines in social contact were a common experience during the pandemic, maintaining some form of social contact helped to protect many peoples’ mental health during this period.
This is backed up by the World Happiness Report, which found that the quality and quantity of people’s social relationships were important to protecting their wellbeing during the pandemic. A study of more than 900 people in Austria for example found that people with more social connections felt less stressed during lockdown.
The results of our own mental health survey echo these findings. We analyzed data from more than 700,000 people who took part in the survey during the COVID-19 pandemic and found that people who talked more to friends and family online or on the phone were likely to have lower anxiety and depression scores. Around two thirds of people reported doing this more during the pandemic, which was also linked to an increase in relaxation and mindfulness.
Socializing with others benefits our physical health too. One reason being around others may be good for us is it helps us to maintain healthy habits, as our health behaviors – from what we eat to how physically active we are – are known to mirror those close to us.
A landmark study from the 1980s found that lack of social connection has a bigger impact on health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. More recent studies have linked strong social bonds to reduced rates of disease and living longer.
Social isolation has also been connected to inflammation, heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, cognitive decline and dementia, leading some to call loneliness a disease in its own right.
A significant chunk of our daily lives is taken up with repeated patterns of behavior that we develop over a lifetime, or habits as we usually call them. But what are the habits that are most important for maintaining good health?
To start with, we have decades of evidence about a habit that isn’t good for you. If you smoke, then quitting is probably the single most important thing you can do for your health.
Smoking is known to increase your risk of developing more than 50 health problems, including cancer, lung disease, diabetes and heart disease. It is the number one cause of preventable disease worldwide and responsible for the deaths of almost 80,000 people in the UK alone each year.
Our own research from the ZOE Health study found that smoking or vaping was associated with higher anxiety and depression scores during COVID-19 lockdowns, with more than a quarter of people reporting smoking or vaping more during the pandemic.
Smoking can be an understandable response to stress, but is not advisable in the long-term. For guidance on stopping smoking, the NHS and CDC both have several resources to help you to quit.
Drinking alcohol is another part of daily life for many people. While a drink every now and then isn’t anything to worry about, it’s important to be aware of the guidelines on drinking.
In the US, the CDC recommends limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men or 1 drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed. All adults in the UK are advised to drink no more than 14 units each week, which is roughly equivalent to seven standard glasses of wine..
As well as your total intake, it’s important to spread your drinking over several days if you regularly consume 14 units a week, and avoid binge drinking. The body can only fully process around one unit of alcohol per hour, so piling in the booze puts extra strain on your system. Binge drinking can also impair your judgment and increase the risk of serious accidents.
In the long term, excessive alcohol consumption also carries risks for heart health, some cancers, immune function, cognitive function and dementia, as well as social and mental health problems.
During COVID, there have been reports of people drinking more or more often. Our own data suggests the picture is more complex. The ZOE Health study found that while 18% of people reported drinking more during lockdown, 11% reported drinking less. However, drinking more was also associated with other less healthy habits, including eating more savory snacks or sweets and being less physically active.
Looking after yourself
Other ways you can look after your general health include taking steps to protect yourself from infections and keeping up to date with your regular medical care.
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of washing your hands thoroughly and wearing a mask when you can, especially if you feel unwell but need to go out and mix with others. This will help to protect you and others not only from COVID-19 but also any other viruses and bacteria that may be spreading.
Food poisoning causes a surprisingly large number of serious illnesses and affects around one in six Americans every year. Practicing good food hygiene, including washing your hands before handling food and taking care with raw meat, is a simple way to avoid an upset stomach or worse.
Vaccines are one of the most important and successful tools we have to protect our health - not just against COVID but many other serious diseases. Make sure you get your COVID vaccinations and boosters when invited. This also goes for any other jabs you and your family may need, such as childhood immunisations, annual flu shots or vaccinations for travel.
Routine medical exams and tests can also help you stay healthy and spot any problems early on. For example, you may choose to take up any cancer screening invites you receive, such as cervical, breast and bowel cancer screening, which can detect cancer early and save lives. And if you have existing health conditions, make sure you keep up to date with any medications, tests, and appointments you may need.
Get to know what’s normal for you
Finally, one of the most important things you can do for your health is simply to check in with yourself regularly, so you get to know what’s normal for you. After all, you’re the expert on yourself.
Knowing what your health and body is normally like is the best way of noticing any changes that might be a sign that something’s wrong. Keeping track of how things normally feel for you – including how much sleep you get, chronic pain, and how often you experience any symptoms of ill health – is a great way of identifying when something isn’t right.
ZOE’s large-scale, data-driven approach provides a platform for you to do this, by offering you the opportunity to track key components of health, across all five strands of health.
The ZOE Health Study aims to connect each of our personal health journeys to patterns in the wider population, revealing new insights into health and disease that could help us all lead healthier, happier lives.
Together, we’re changing the future of health research. To get involved, simply download the ZOE Health Study app, fill in your health profile, and get in the habit of logging daily health reports. We’ll be adding new studies and research activities as we bring them online, so watch this space for updates.
Help science and keep logging!
Explore the ZOE Health Academy to learn more about the science of nutrition, healthy living, and immunity.