Science Says: Eight Reasons to Be Socially Engaged
Over the last few decades, researchers have been fine-tuning a definitive "prescription" for healthy aging, defining the building blocks that combine to help us maintain the highest possible level of function and quality of life in our later years.
In previous issues of Caring Right at Home, we have examined some of those building blocks—such as physical activity, "brain care" and personal safety.
We now turn to a topic that has received increased attention recently: the importance of socializing and maintaining human relationships throughout life. Recent studies confirm that socialization can have a positive impact in these areas:
A 2007 UCLA study demonstrated that loneliness decreases the efficiency of the immune system. The study's author, Dr. Steven Cole, says, "The biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes—the activity of our genes." Several other studies also confirm that people with strong social connections exhibit stronger immunity against disease.
University of Chicago researchers released a study in 2006 showing that loneliness is linked to high blood pressure. Stress seems to be a key element of this connection. Author John Cacioppo points out that lonely individuals are less likely to approach stressful situations with "active coping and attempting to problem solve," which leads to a hypertension-promoting passive reaction. For humans, discussing one's problems with someone else is an instant stress buster.
Brain Health and Memory
A 2009 study from the American Academy of Neurology examining stress and dementia confirms that people who are socially active may be less likely to develop cognitive impairment. And a 2008 Harvard School of Public Health study showed that an active social life slows memory loss. In another University of Chicago study, MRI scans confirmed the negative impact of loneliness on brain health. It is important to note that in these studies, the researchers were careful to rule out "reverse causation"—the possibility that study participants were less social because they had memory loss, and not the opposite.
Physical activity is frequently called the number one ingredient for healthy aging, and numerous studies demonstrate that social connections lead to increased exercise. For instance, it is more fun to walk with someone. If it's more fun, you are more likely to stick with it. And many gym members confirm that they would prefer waiting in line for the treadmill to work out in the company of a group of like minded people, rather than exercise at home. According to the International Council on Active Aging, for many seniors, one of the main predictors of maintaining one's fitness program over time is the good old "buddy system." And a recent study from Rush University shows that less frequent social activity is linked to a loss of motor function. So keep yourself motivated, and surround yourself with other people who will support your fitness goals.
Depression is a common challenge of growing older. One of the most important and powerful ways to fight depression is to interact and engage with others. A 2009 report from the American Sociological Association examined the connection between depression and feelings of loneliness, finding that the two are intertwined. Untreated, depression can cause a senior to withdraw from social engagement, but spending more time with others can help "jump start" recovery.
Unfortunately, physical pain from conditions such as arthritis or osteoporosis also occurs more commonly as we grow older. Chronic pain can have a major negative impact on quality of life. A Harvard Medical School study describes the cycle: "Pain slows recovery from depression, depression makes pain harder to treat…depression leads to isolation and isolation leads to further depression." Maintaining social connection with others can be an important tool in decreasing the impact of pain. And people who are coping with chronic pain also report the positive effects of participating in support groups with others who are dealing with the same challenges.
Gerontologists have long known that social isolation is a big risk factor for malnutrition. A 2009 study of hospitalized seniors from the Universite de Montreal found "a clear correlation between food intake and social interaction." Seniors who live alone often say that it is "just too much trouble" to fix a nutritious meal for one, and they may skip meals or get in the habit of snacking on junk food. This can lead to a serious weight loss—or in some cases, to obesity, when a lonely person turns to food for companionship.
It may seem paradoxical, but socialization with a large number of people has been shown to have a positive impact on our primary relationships. A 2009 article in the AARP Bulletin points out that "even though Americans are closer to their spouses than ever before, that kind of intimacy can work against us if we allow ourselves to 'cocoon' within the relationship." Married couples who become too insular tend to expect their partner to meet all their emotional needs. In the same way, too much reliance on the parent/child bond can also be stressful for both, even when parents and children are the kind who describe each other as "best friends." Studies show that seniors who socialize not only with family members but also with their peers have better emotional, intellectual and physical health.
Yes, as we grow older, it can take a little more effort and more planning to stay fully engaged with life, but the rewards are great. Of course, the amount of socialization needed is an individual thing—some of us are born social butterflies and others need our "alone time" more than others. But for most people, socialization is as important as physical activity—and when it comes to social skills, "use it or lose it" applies.
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