Having interpersonal relationships is one of the main ways that humans have evolved and endured. As people got older in early civilizations, supportive relationships were vital to their long-term survival.
You might be surprised to know that the importance of social connectedness has stubbornly persisted in to our modern life, and in fact, has one of the most profound impacts on our disease and mortality rates in aging. For women, social wellness is especially important because (bummer alert) we tend to outlive our partners.
Social wellness has its own field of study and has come to the forefront in healthy aging research and policy in the past decade. This week, I will help you explore the ways that improving your social connections can impact your health, and will offer five important tips for improving your social connections long-term.
Typically, preventative health is focused on physical behaviours like quitting smoking, eating better, increasing physical activity and so forth, but we now know that far more effort should be spent emphasizing the importance of social wellness. Having good quality social relationships impacts our mental health, physical health, health behaviours, and our overall mortality risk.
A collection recent of studies have connected low levels of social ties with the development of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer, slower healing from injury, and impaired immune function. Simply put, supportive social relationships can help prevent diseases from developing and help us to recover faster when we are sick.
The numbers regarding the health impacts of social wellness are startling. In an analysis of social health studies, researchers looked at data from 308,849 individuals who were followed for an average of 7.5 years.
Those with strong social relationships were 50% more likely to survive during the study period than those with poor quality relationships. This health effect could be compared with quitting smoking, and has a bigger overall impact than other well-known interventions like reducing obesity or increasing physical activity.
One of the most long-running studies of human health and happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, found that poor social connections were more predictive of mortality than high cholesterol at mid-life. The lead researcher of the Harvard study delivers a really engaging Ted Talk on the results of the research, which you can check out here.
How does the protective effect of social wellness work? There are two main theories. One idea is that social relationships may provide the overall resources that promote our physiological and psychological responses, that in turn buffer the negative impacts of stressors on health.
The second theory is that your health is improved in the more direct ways like friends providing emotional support, or by the indirect outcomes of your friendships, like when you mimic healthy behaviours of women in your social group.
We know from current research that our both the number and quality of our social connections are decreasing. This is happening for a myriad of reasons including changes in family structures, less households with different generations of family living together, and increased rates of disabilities as people age.
We can reverse this trend at any age. Here are some tips to help you get started.
I created these tips from my community-based research with older adults, and specifically spending time with those who are socially isolated in later life:
1. Be a joiner. In my work, we talk a lot about joiners and non-joiners. Joiners, as you might have already guessed, are those people who join regular group activities. Guess what? The joiners are typically more physically fit, happier, and are more connected to their communities.
The non-joiners are usually alone and isolated out of a long-term habit; they never saw the value of being a part of a group, and now have huge difficulty in joining up when they need groups the most. Become a joiner now.
2. Adopt a friendship mindset: Is there a friend that you haven’t seen or connected with in a while? Reach out to that person this week. See if you can reach out to four friends over the next month.
3. Prioritize your social wellness: Keep in mind that your social wellness is just as important as getting regular physical activity or eating well. Even if it seems like a lot of effort, schedule in time for your friends every week or at the very least, every month.
4. Take baby steps: Sometimes it’s easier to just hang-out with your partner than going out with friends, but the unfortunate reality is that one day, one of you will no longer be there. Friends provide the much-need support and long-term outlet that we can’t get from just one person.
5. Focus on activities that can remain accessible. This may sound strange when you are in later middle age and fit, but if you focus your social effort on something that takes, for example, a long-drive, when your mobility changes you could potentially lose this outlet. The number one barrier to social participation as people age is lack of transportation.
We never outgrow the need for our girlfriends. They support us in our darkest times and are there to celebrate at our times of joy. Friendships buffer us against life’s stressors and challenges and truly protect our health. We need to care for those friendships in the same way that we care for other treasured things in life.
I encourage you to develop a friendship mindset and see if you can increase your social connectedness, or work on nurturing those important relationships you already have. If you want a way to find like-minded women to connect with online, I invite you to join our private Age Sister Facebook group.
Next week, I’ll be writing about a very cool way that you can put social wellness, mindfulness, and physical activity into practice, all in one activity. Make sure to click on your weekly email link to get all the details.
And, if you want to know more specifics about social wellness, please send me an email or leave me a comment below the post.
Your sister in health,
  Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54–S66.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7), 1–20.
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