Having a good support system leads to longer life in women, says Mason researcher

Nancy Freeborne

According to Nancy Freeborne, adjunct professor in Mason’s Department of Health Administration and Policy, having a good support system of family and friends may lead to a longer, healthier life.

Her new study, “Perceived social support and the risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study,” published in Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society, is the largest observational study to date in women to evaluate perceived social support’s association with cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. 

She and a team of researchers from multiple institutions found a correlation between perceived social support and a lower risk of mortality in women. When women reported a low level of social support, the researchers found that predicted about a 20 percent greater risk of death during the 10 years of the study compared to women who reported high levels of support. 

Previous studies have shown that psychology and biology are connected. According to Freeborne’s study, risk factors that have a social element, such as loneliness, or a psychological element, such as depression, are associated with many types of disease, behavior changes and mortality.

"What we're finding is that psychosocial factors may—and it's hard to prove—affect a person’s physiology or biology and therefore worsen a person’s health or, alternatively, improve a person’s health,” Freeborne said.

Participants were between the ages of 50 and 79 and were monitored for 10.8 years. They were asked about their social support via nine questions, such as: “Do you have a friend who could help you with something?”; “Do you have someone you could go out to lunch with?” and “Do you have a pal you can call when you are down?”

Although the study did not find a direct link between cardiovascular disease and social support, Freeborne believes that a longer study might make the connection clearer. 

Studying psychosocial factors is difficult because one doesn’t know the exact dose of the social factor—if one gives a pill for diabetes or blood pressure, it is easy to measure or count the number of drugs given.

“Additionally, support is potentially difficult to measure because it overlaps with other factors, such as being married or having a certain family size,” Freeborne said “We tried to account for this in our study.”  

Freeborne added that because social support is relatively cheap to deliver and free of side effects, it could be an inexpensive and easy intervention to improve a person’s health. Freeborne said suggestions related to the benefits of social support should be part of guidelines for health care professionals going forward. 

Nancy Freeborne can be reached at nfreebor@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Mary Lee Clark at 703-993-5118 or mclark35@gmu.edu.

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 37,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.