Staying socially active as you age isn’t just about having fun. Research has found that if you maintain close friendships and interact socially you’ll probably live longer and protect yourself against disease by boosting your immune system.
“If you're not heading to an office or getting out and about each day, you may be missing out on important social interaction that you need to stay sharp, healthy, and maybe even ward off dementia,” according to the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC).
Some specific benefits to staying socially active as you age include potentially reduced risk for cardiovascular problems and cancer, potentially reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk for mental health problems such as depression.
One large study found that even when you have health-related challenges, staying socially active as you age appears to lessen the decline in well-being some older adults often experience.
"Our results indicate that living a socially active life and prioritizing social goals are associated with higher late-life satisfaction and less severe declines toward the end of life," said study lead author Denis Gerstorf, PhD, of Humboldt University in Berlin.
Researchers highlighted the observation that while low social participation and lack of social goals was separately associated with lower levels of well-being, “when combined they each magnified one another.”
“A socially engaged lifestyle often involves cognitive stimulation and physical activity, which in turn may protect against the neurological and physical factors underlying cognitive decline,” said co-author Gert Wagner of the German Institute for Economic Research.
The URMC prescribes starting with staying in touch with your friends and family, visiting them regularly.
Other recommendations include volunteering, participating in activities at a senior center, joining a group focused on interests you have, taking a class, and joining a gym or fitness center to stay in shape and interact with others.
It adds that when you can’t be with someone face-to-face, try phone calls, “snail” mail, and email to stay in touch. If you’re not comfortable with computers ask a young relative for a crash course.
One of the important aspects of your social life to consider is that it’s something you can control. While physical health-related challenges might keep you from participating in certain activities, your decision to socialize is more open ended, another study concluded.
“People have some control over their social lives, so it is encouraging to find that something many people find enjoyable — socializing with others — can benefit their cognitive and physical health,” study author Patricia A. Thomas, PhD, of the Population Research Center at University of Texas at Austin, told The Center For Advancing Health.
Conducted at intervals that ranged from three to seven years, the study found that older adults with high levels of social interaction that slightly decreased over time, and those who had medium to high levels that increased over time had fewer cognitive and physical limitations.
Older adults who began with low levels of social engagement that decreased further over time didn’t fair as well.
“Even if older adults weren’t socially active when they were younger, when they increase social activity later in life, it can still reduce physical and cognitive health issues,” Thomas said.
September 28, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN