It’s long been recognised that fulfilling social connections have multiple benefits for people’s wellbeing. A recently published study suggests that satisfying relationships with loved ones, friends and work colleagues may not only help prevent chronic health problems in aging but could even be more important than diet or exercise.
Social relationship satisfaction, health and aging
These findings come from an analysis of Australian population data collected from women in mid-life who were followed through to early old age. It included nearly 7,000 women aged 45-50 without selected chronic conditions at the beginning of the study who completed questionnaires every three years or so about social relationship satisfaction.
Building on previous research, the study combined several factors to gain a broader picture of relationship quality. This included size of social networks, marital status, perceived levels of social support and loneliness, and self-rated satisfaction with an array of different relationships (partners, family, friends, work and social activities).
Over a 20-year period, more than half the women reported multiple long-term health conditions such as depression, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. This was consistently associated with lower levels of relationship satisfaction. Interestingly, other factors known to affect health, such as lower income and education level, unhealthy lifestyle and menopause, only partly explained the results.
Public health implications
These researchers are not the first to report the importance of relationships and meaningful social interactions for physical and mental health.
A previous study found, for instance, that social isolation and loneliness – which tends to increase with aging – is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia as well as other serious health problems including heart disease and premature death. Another study investigated 100 key contributing factors to depression and found that social connection was the most protective.
On the other hand, research in the so-called Blue Zones found that having a life partner and close relationships with children and extended families, supportive social networks and belonging to a faith-based community are three of nine core factors shared by the world’s longest living people.
But it does underscore a need to recognise the immense benefits of social support for older adults – especially those in residential aged care, who were found to have a five-fold higher risk of mental health problems than those living in the community.
In their conclusion to the recent paper, the authors write that “[s]ocial connections … should be considered a public health priority”, recommending that “interventions focusing on social relationship satisfaction or quality may be particularly efficient in preventing the progression of chronic conditions”.
Encouragingly, some facilities have taken steps towards improving emotional wellbeing and social support of older adults, such as psychological counselling, dog therapy and combining childcare with aged care.