As we move further along in our Aging Well series, we continue the discussion with a focus on socialization and human connection. Studies have shown time and again that social connection is vital to human health throughout a person’s life. Research has begun to shed a brighter light on this topic over the last few decades because of its major role in overall well-being. Here, we’re breaking down five critical insights on the incredible impact of socialization and human connection on the aging process.
1. Human connection is linked to a longer lifespan.
There’s a robust body of research providing scientific evidence that social isolation is a leading indicator of premature mortality. Seniors who lack an adequate network of healthy relationships and ongoing social interaction can decline much more quickly in overall health.
In fact, people with active, in-person social lives have a 2- to 15-year lifespan advantage. It’s been shown that social contact is an even more powerful predictor of health and longevity than physical exercise or even whether or not a person smokes. A recent research analysis involving 3.4 million people at an average age of 66 revealed that mortality risk was 20% higher for those who were socially isolated than for those who were not, and 32% higher for people who lived alone versus those who did not. When it comes to senior life and longevity, social connection matters.
2. Social isolation leads to a higher risk of health conditions.
According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), research actually links social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for certain physical and mental conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease. So if we’re talking about the concept of aging well, we can’t overlook the vital aspect of social connection.
“People who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others,” says the NIA, “tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function, studies show.”
3. Social connection supports stress management.
Stress doesn’t discriminate based on generation, and no matter what’s going on in a senior’s life, there’s potential for them to suffer from the physical and emotional effects of stress. Some of the most common manifestations of stress that may interfere with a senior’s quality of life include tension headaches, indigestion, heart palpitations, poor concentration, sleep difficulties, anxiety, irritability, crying, and overeating.
As we age, our brains can actually become less adept at regulating hormone levels, which makes it particularly difficult for seniors experiencing immense anxiousness or worry to minimize the physical impacts. Learning how to work through that stress is critical to aging well.
Studies have demonstrated that having a network of social support provides mental health benefits such as improving the ability to cope with stressful situations. There’s something to be said about lowered cortisol levels as it relates to the overall well-being of seniors. Individuals high in social connection experience a greater ability to change their cognitive interpretation of stress through emotion regulation, thereby decreasing stress-induced cortisol levels and having a calming effect on the nervous system.
4. Social engagement promotes mental acuity and cognitive health.
Scientists have long thought that the brain’s ability to learn and grow was hardwired and finite, but the latest research on neuroplasticity reveals that the brain can actually continue to change, reorganize and create new pathways. This means that human brains can adapt and stay sharp well past the formative years. To realize the full benefits of neuroplasticity, however, one must practice using their brain.
This is a major reason why social engagement is critical for positive aging outcomes. Seniors should continue to develop existing relationships and create new ones with those around them. Something as simple as playing a card game or learning a new hobby together can have a major impact on boosting cognitive health.
5. There’s a real danger in solitary living.
In her book The Village Effect, developmental psychologist Susan Pinker references the uptick in Americans living alone, noting that the rate has increased every decade since the early twentieth century. Seniors are a significant percentage of this population.
“While living alone doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re lonely,” she writes, “it does mean that like it or not, you have less physical proximity to other human beings whom you care about and who have an interest in your survival—fewer impromptu conversations, fewer shared puns and jokes, and, of course, less physical contact.” Essentially, “people who are solitary are deprived of the daily pats, hugs and eye contact that primates have been using to communicate for at least 60 million years.”
All of this has a dramatic impact on seniors’ physical, mental and emotional health. In fact, “without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic head injury,” explains Pinker. “If we don’t interact regularly with people face-to-face, the odds are we won’t live as long, remember information as well, or be as happy as we could have been.”
The lesson is this: When seniors find themselves living alone, feeling alone, or gravitating toward isolation, it is important for them to seek opportunities for socialization and human connection. For some, this might mean a lifestyle change. Senior living communities offer tangible benefits in the way of social interaction, day-to-day contact, opportunities for relationship-building, and a sense of safety among neighbors and staff. By boosting interpersonal engagement, interacting with others more regularly, sharing meals and activities, and taking advantage of various human touchpoints, seniors are better positioned to achieve their goals of aging well.
For additional tips on senior health and lifestyle issues, check out our blog. To find out how United Methodist Homes provides a wealth of offerings and opportunities to support the health and well-being of our residents, contact us today or schedule a complimentary visit now.