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Leah and Allan Tidwell hold hands in their Utah County home in 2007, the year they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.

If you shun friends and social relationships, you're putting your health at risk.

A paper published recently by Brigham Young University researchers says a lack of friends is as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (nearly a pack a day) or being an alcoholic. It's more harmful than not exercising and twice as damaging as obesity.

We're not talking friends of the social-networking variety. The research, a review of 148 studies, most of which pre-dated Facebook or Twitter, determined that people with greater social relationships are 50 percent more likely to live longer than reclusive peers.

The role of extended family should not be underestimated. Ditto for friends and other social relationships. These connections help buffer negative or stressful events in life, reduce risk-taking behavior and provide meaningful roles in life.

In other words, friendships and familial relationships can be an important anchor. They help us cope during difficult times. They celebrate our joys and successes.

This is not the stuff of an atta-boy via e-mail or a virtual bouquet. These are people who bring you a meal when you're sick, lend an ear when you need someone to talk to or simply offer a hug of encouragement. While social networking may help people keep in touch, these "connections" lack the same degree of intimacy as face-to-face contact.

The underlying message of this research is that humans need relationships to keep them healthy, no different than they need to embrace healthy lifestyle habits such as regular exercise or a nutritionally sound diet.

Yes, it is possible for the occasional social recluse to live a long life. But this review of research suggests that social relationships can extend that life and, unquestionably, make it a sweeter, more interesting ride.