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Ohio State study finds people who give emotional support may also benefit from better health

A new study from Ohio State University researchers has found a link between the desire to give support to loved ones and lower levels of inflammation, which is a common indicator of disease. [fizkes / Shutterstock]
A new study from Ohio State University researchers has found a link between the desire to give support to loved ones and lower levels of inflammation, which is a common indicator of disease. [fizkes / Shutterstock]

Researchers have often theorized that receiving support from peers and loved ones can be beneficial to an individual’s health, but a new study from Ohio State University found that a person’s willingness to give support to others may also boost their immunity.

OSU researchers looked at a  survey that measured people’s desire to help others - and their perception of how much support they can give. An analysis of the responses found that those who reported giving more support had lower levels of inflammation, a common indicator of disease and injury, said lead researcher Tao Jiang, a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State.

“What we basically found is that perceived support given moderates the relationship between positive social relationships and IL-6, which is a marker of inflammation,” Jiang said.

Survey participants answered questions about how much emotional and financial support they give and receive from loved ones, Jiang said. Participants subsequently received blood tests, which measured interleukin-6 (IL-6,) a protein in the immune system that indicates systemic inflammation in the body, he said.

High levels of IL-6 are often associated with increased risk of diseases such as cancer and heart disease, said Ohio State psychology professor Baldwin Way, who also worked on the study.

Our body has this tremendously elaborate system to respond to pathogens like viruses, such as COVID-19, or bacteria, and those pathways are called inflammation, and those can be activated by social stress, a fight with your spouse, lack of time with others, and appears to maybe be deactivated by how much support you think you can give to others,” Way said. “So there's this interplay between the system, this immune system, as measured by inflammation that is designed to fend off pathogens, but can also be triggered and affected by our social relationships, which is a fascinating mystery of the way the body is made.”

A key finding from the study is that lower IL-6 levels were found in participants who not only had positive social relationships but also were willing to give support in those relationships, Jiang added.

“The takeaway is, basically, mutual support is important in people’s health, not just [receiving] support from others,” he said.

Researchers analyzed data from 1,054 participants in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the U.S. Participants were all healthy adults between the ages of 34 and 84. The survey asked questions about participants’ social relationships, such as how often they received help from their friends, family and romantic partners.

What is unique about this data set, though, is that participants were also asked to rate how much they were available to support their loved ones, Way said.

Participants were asked questions about topics such as how often friends could open up to them, or how much they cared about their loved ones’ feelings, according to the researchers.

“I think much of the focus has been on the health effects of what we can get out of or receive out of a relationship, a social relationship,” he said. “This seems to be showing that it's not just that, but it's also how much you think you can give and support and provide to others in a relationship. That seems to have positive effects on health, as measured by this inflammatory marker we've been looking at.”

The analysis also found the link between IL-6 and giving support was predominantly found in female participants, Way said.

The study’s authors hope to do more research on the gender-related findings and increase the sample size of future studies before making conclusions, Way added.

However, this observation was unsurprising to the researchers, Jiang said.

“Research has shown that the social relationship is more important for women's identity,” he said. “This may be the reason why we only find this pattern for women instead of men.

While the study shows that people who believe they give support tend to have lower levels of inflammation, additional research is needed to understand the relationship between a person’s health and their actual actions of support, rather than just their perceived support, said Syamil Yakin, a research assistant who worked on the study.

“Obviously, you can say that you're very caring and understanding and appreciative of your friends, family and partner, but again, we know a more accurate measure of support would be like, ‘OK, how much time, then? How many days a week did you spend with your friends? How many days a week did you go see your parents?’” he said.

“In our study, we focused on perceived support given, and psychologically, it might be different from actual support given,” Jiang added. “It reflects people's intention to give support … and we find that these intentions, this perceived available support given, moderate the social relationship and IL-6, and we will be very interested to look at whether people's actual given support also has this effect.”

The study accounted for other factors that may affect inflammation, such as age, income and education as well as health behaviors, medication use and diagnosed medical conditions, according to the researchers.

Jiang hopes people will learn from these results that the intention to help others – and the feeling of mutual support – was the key link to better health outcomes.  

“When their partner comes to them [to] talk about some of the issues they have, they can always provide some emotional support, encourage them, share their own story to help them get through the difficult time. All of this reflects people’s intention to help,” he said. “When people are more compassionate, they will have more intention to help.”

The study was published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Brain, Behavior, Immunity.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.