No one wants to get cancer.
No one wants a heart attack.
No one wants to spend their retirement in a La-Z-Boy recliner, too weak and achy to get up.
But a lot of people end up doing just that.
The health they’ve relied on—taken for granted, even—disappears in the blink of an eye…
And they never get it back.
Maybe you’ve seen that happen to friends or family members.
And you’re NEVER going to let that happen to you.
YOU follow a great diet. You exercise regularly. You pop handfuls of supplements. You read the latest health news.
You’re not going to let age stop you.
But here’s the crazy thing…
There’s ONE THING that can protect your health better than diet, exercise, and supplements.
It can EVEN protect your health if you have high risk factors such as obesity, smoking, and the wrong genes.
Its biggest fan is none other than Dr. Dean Ornish, the guy who proved that heart disease was reversible.
Dr. Ornish is best known for his belief that a low-fat, plant-based diet is best for the heart. People expect him to talk about the importance of diet. Eat these foods, and you’ll feel better and stay healthier.
But there’s one thing he wants to talk about more than diet.
MORE than heart disease.
Yes, that touchy-feely stuff. The stuff most doctors won’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
Dr. Ornish wants to talk about love because he’s found that “love and intimacy are among the most powerful factors in health and illness.”
He even says:
I am not aware of any other factor in medicine … that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness, and premature death from all causes.”
And he’s got the science to prove it.
In his 1998 classic Love and Survival, he lists study after study that shows that close relationships protect against death and illness, while loneliness and isolation contribute to poor health.
He concludes that the best thing we can do to protect our health is cultivate intimate relationships, along with living a healthy lifestyle.
If you’ve ever wondered why some people are brimming with good health despite their bad diet, lack of exercise, and complete disregard for healthy habits … this may explain why.
Close, emotionally satisfying relationships protect people EVEN when they have other risk factors for disease.
The research is so compelling that an entirely new field of study has emerged, called psychoneuroimmunology.
It’s the study of how psychological factors—like optimism and social support—affect how resistant you are to getting sick.
In the past, doctors have focused on the causes of disease. If cancer is caused by cancerous cells, then medical treatment should focus on those cells. If ulcers are caused by bacteria, then medical treatment should focus on the bacteria.
But not everyone exposed to the same bacteria will get sick. Not everyone with cancerous cells develops cancer. Why?
Because the body has a built-in defense system that works most of the time to keep us healthy.
Social support boosts those immune defenses. The more connected you feel, the better your body protects you against illness.
But what kind of social support are we talking about here?
Do you have to be married, have lots of friends, a great family, an online tribe?
The data has long showed that marriage provides health benefits, although marriage may be better for men than for women—and those benefits disappear when there’s abuse or high levels of conflict.
In terms of friends, you don’t need a lot. Having one close friend and confidante you can rely on is a good start. This person should be someone you could call at 3am in the morning if you were distressed and needed to talk.
Dr. Ornish suggests asking yourself:
- If you got ill all of a sudden, do you have someone who would drive you to the hospital?
- If you were having financial issues, do you know someone who would loan you money?
- If you were sick, do you have someone who would offer to help look after your kids until you were better?
Your relationship with your parents is also important. A Harvard study found that men who didn’t have close relationships with their mothers in their early 20s ended up developing serious health conditions in midlife. Less than half of men who had a warm relationship with their mother ended up with health problems.
That doesn’t mean you’re doomed if you have a difficult relationship with your parents. Although the way you learn to relate to your parents in early life predicts the way you relate to intimate partners in later life, it’s not set in stone. (Learn more about attachment styles.)
As for whether your online tribe satisfies the requirements of love and intimacy, that’s unclear. Some studies have shown that social media and screen time contribute to feelings of loneliness and depression.
What IS clear is that we’re meant to live in community.
Whether our community consists of two or two hundred, being with people we love makes us feel better AND makes our bodies work better.
Pursue your social life with the same vigor as your diet and exercise habits.
Love truly DOES make life worth living.
 Love and Survival (New York: HarperCollins, 1998) 2.