Background Positive support from social relationships is associated with better health, although it remains debatable whether positive social support buffers against the negative effects of social disadvantage on health. Moreover, few studies have considered both positive and negative relationship features from different networks (partner, relatives, and friends) and their association with allostatic load, a multisystem physiological dysregulation index, and none have examined whether the association of social disadvantage with higher levels of allostatic load reduces among those with more positive social support (the stress buffering role of positive social support).
Methods This study examined data from 7928 adults from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (wave 2–2010/11). Positive and negative social relationships were assessed within networks (partner, relatives, friends). Allostatic load (range 0–10) was measured by summing eleven risk scores across neuroendocrine, immune, metabolic, cardiovascular and anthropometric systems. We used negative binomial regression models to examine the association of positive social support and negative social interactions with allostatic load, controlling for socioeconomic/demographic, health, behavioural and personality factors.
Results Positive support from all networks was associated with lower allostatic load. Similarly, negative interactions from all networks were associated with higher allostatic load. However, after adjusting for all covariates, only positive support from partners and relatives, and negative interactions with friends were associated with allostatic load. Men with degree qualifications and supportive partners had lower allostatic load (2.3; 95% CI: 2.2–2.5) than highly educated men with low partner support (2.7; 95% CI: 2.4–3.0); positive support did not buffer the association of low education with allostatic load. Unemployed adults with supportive partners had lower allostatic load (2.4; 95% CI: 1.9–2.8) compared to unemployed adults with low partner support (3.2; 95% CI: 2.4–4.0).
Conclusion Positive social support from partners appears to buffer the effect of unemployment on allostatic load. However, contrary to the stress buffering hypothesis, highly educated men appear to benefit more from supportive partners than men and women with no qualifications.
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