A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that the “depth and breadth of your social connections will impact your health just as much as diet and exercise.” That’s a pretty bold statement! And it’s a clear indicator that combating social isolation is crucial for the health of older adults.
An article in the Washington Post covers the highlights of this study, which was conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These include that older adults are more at risk for developing hypertension from social isolation than from diabetes. Social challenges even increase the risk for obesity.
Yang Claire Yang, the study’s first author, shares that, even though a wealth of research indicates that loneliness in later years affects someone’s longevity—and that a rich social life contributes to better health—they haven’t yet determined how “social connections get under the skin.”
Researchers had a significant amount of data to analyze, collected from four “massive longitudinal surveys.” Collectively, these studies followed more than 14,000 people during several life stages; throughout, they learned about the participants’ social life and physical health.
Factors used to measure social life included:
- Number of friends
- Marital status
- Religious affiliation
- Community involvement
To determine the quality of social relationships, people were asked about their friends and relatives. Were they critical? Supportive? Loving? Argumentative? Annoying? Health factors considered were blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference and a protein that measures inflammation.
For adolescents and older adults, having a big social network was important. In between—during the mid-30s to 50s—relationship quality was the crucial point. The conclusion? During the midpoint of life, people often have children and older parents. So life naturally gets them involved in multiple social spheres. For older adults, this may require more of a conscious effort.
To quote Yang, “Try to have a good social life and connections with other people. Cultivate broad and somewhat deep, functional [relationships].”
How to Beat Social Isolation
If your community has a senior center, find out what activities they offer. According to the National Council of Aging, as we previously wrote about, “Senior centers are one of the most widely used services for older adults with 11,400 senior centers serving more than 1 million adults every day. These centers connect older adults to community services that help them to stay healthy and independent.”
What about your local church, synagogue or mosque? Affiliation with a spiritual community is associated with better health, according to researchers who studied older adults (aged 55 to 80). The reasons for this are complex, but one factor mentioned is “increased social support through group membership and congregation.”
Join a gym that, besides offering physical exercise, provides social opportunities. YMCAs are especially known for this, but social interaction can be found in other facilities, as well.
Volunteer! As we have blogged in the past, volunteering can help to provide social interaction. “Many volunteer activities are organized around groups or teams, so participating in one is a natural way to fulfill a need for social interaction.”
As a final suggestion, find a part-time job in an area that interests you. This helps to keep you engaged; people who work into later decades (60s, 70s and 80s—even 90s) often outlive those who fully retire.