The Importance of Social Interaction for Seniors

As they grow older, their social circle become smaller. However, number is not an issue, all they need is someone to talk to.

Before diving into the benefits of social interaction for seniors, let’s quickly look at a few detrimental outcomes that result from not being social.

Look at these terrible consequences that can result from being socially isolated:

  • Loneliness – the topic of loneliness deserves its own article altogether, but the main takeaway is loneliness is linked to cognitive and functional decline. A study from UC San Francisco found loneliness to be a risk factor for functional decline and also early deaths in seniors over age 60.

  • Depression – a study out of Amsterdam by Max L. Stek and team showed that people with perceived loneliness were likely to be affected by depression, which in old age had a greater impact on mortality

  • Less physical activity – you’re less likely to be physically active if you’re going at it alone without an accountability partner or group of people to motivate you. Not only that, but the TV is such an easy distraction (and bad habit) that keeps you sedentary.

  • On average, TV watching for those 65 and up consumes 47 hours and 13 minutes of their time each week (source)

  • Many researchers suggest increased television viewing by older adults as a sign of disengagement from the world; others see it as an attempt to remain in touch (source)

  • Older adults watch more TV but enjoy it less than younger people (source)

This list can of course go on and on, where lack of social interaction for seniors can lead to health-related ailments – like high blood pressure, or worse, a greater risk of death.

According to the National Institute on Aging:

“Positive indicators of social well-being may be associated with lower levels of interleukin-6 in otherwise healthy people. Interleukin-6 is an inflammatory factor implicated in age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer.”

Let’s step away from the scare tactics and focus on the benefits of social interaction for seniors. Here’s why it’s important for us to be socially engaged and to focus on the concept of community as you age:

Social interaction benefit #1: Improves mental health

When we’re socially engaged, we’re less likely to fall victim to mental illnesses, like depression.

According to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), social isolation is a key trigger for mental illness. On the contrary, you’re more likely to have better mental health if you have supportive relationships with friends, family and even neighbors.

Check out these key findings from the ESRC:

  • Adults who have no friends are psychologically the worst off.

  • It’s an internationally shared concept that friendships are important. A French study showed that people who didn’t maintain friendships but at least established relationships with their neighbors experienced a better quality of life than people who had no social exchange.

  • Volunteering, which involves social interaction, has a positive impact on the well-being of retirees.

  • For women, having a large family network doesn’t necessarily mean a healthier well-being. Family can place more burden and obligations on women, which means friendships are more important for their well-being.

  • For men, family networks don’t seem to weigh as heavy burdens, and men with large family and friend networks have a healthier well-being.

Social interaction benefit #2: Improves physical health

There are so many physical benefits to your health that come with being socially engaged. To name a few:

  • Lower blood pressure – a study by Fadia T. Shaya and research team found that social networks help control hypertension. The research team learned from studying 248 African Americans that

“clustering of patients in social networks around hypertension education has a positive impact on the management of hypertension in minority populations and may help address cardiovascular health disparities.”

Also, we learned that heart health = brain health, and can help ward off forms of dementia. I listed out two major tips related to cardiovascular health and Alzheimer’s prevention.

  • According to the Novant Health Library, the benefits of being social among older adults include “potentially reduced risk for cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.” There was also a study conducted at the University of Rochester Medical Center that supported the idea that increased social engagement among seniors not only helped to lower blood pressure but also reduced the risk of cardiovascular issues and forms of arthritis.

  • Live longer – a 2001 study by Lennartsson and Silverstein found by studying 537 seniors in Sweden aged 77 and over, that people who partook in social-friendship and social-cultural activities are associated with reduced mortality.

Social interaction benefit #3. Improves brain health

We tend to have higher levels of cognitive function with increased social interaction.

A 2007 study conducted in California by Valerie C. Crooks and colleagues, followed 2,249 women and found that “older women who maintained large social networks reduced their risk of dementia and delayed or prevented cognitive impairment.”

The researchers also found that the size of the social network matters. Of these 2,249 Californian women, those with larger social networks were 26% less likely to develop dementia compared to the participants with smaller social circles.

In another study by Bryan James and colleagues out of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, 1,138 seniors with dementia were measured for social activity levels and cognitive functioning over a 12-year period.

Here’s what James and his research team found out:

People with frequent social interaction had 70% less cognitive decline than people with low social interaction.

Social interaction benefit #4. Provides safety

Simply by being around others, you’ll be more likely to live safely. Not only can someone help you if you have a bad fall, but you can also lean on your community and circle of influence for a plethora of other non-ideal situations that may arise.

Also, your living facility and home neighborhood matters when it comes to safety and social engagement. The more social you are with your neighbors and the people that live around your home, the safer you’ll feel, and, in turn, the more likely you’ll go on walks and get your exercise in.