Are social interactions important to our health?
As a fitness instructor, I spend a lot of time talking and writing about staying active in order to stay healthy. As we age, achieving this becomes more difficult — but we know from research that almost all physical conditions improve with physical activity. 1
Today, however, I’m going to focus on something else that can also have a huge impact on our health: our interaction with others. Research continues to reveal that these connections are very important in our senior years, perhaps as important as physical activity.
There are many ways we can interact with others, including attending fitness classes, so in that way, my two topics intersect.
Three Research Projects that Reveal the Importance of Social Interaction
Research #12: People who are lonely may experience faster functional decline than those who are not
There is already research that suggests that loneliness may lead to hypertension, insomnia, and depression. A new study now suggests that loneliness also impacts functional abilities, preventing people from staying independent. More than 1500 older adults were involved in this study; the average age was 71 years and 18% of them lived alone. Over six years, the participants were asked questions every two years about such things as whether they felt left out, isolated or lacked companionship.
People who said they were lonely were more likely to report difficulty in three areas: 1) accomplishing daily living tasks; 2) using their upper body, and 3) climbing stairs. Thirty-eight percent of them reported a decline in mobility. Even more disturbing, loneliness was associated with an increased risk of death. One of the authors of the report, Carla Perissinotto, MD, MHS, assistant professor in the University of California, San Francisco Division of Geriatrics, said, “[This study reveals] that loneliness is independently associated with an increased rate of death and functional decline.... The aging of our population and the greater odds of institutionalization make it important for us to think about all the factors that are putting elders in danger, including social and environmental risks.”
Research #23: Personality plays a role in longevity
Researchers asked themselves this question: What is more important for longevity — physiological health status or psychological factors?
Wanting to find answers to those questions, researchers looked at the participants in a well-known study called the Longevity Genes Project. This project followed the lives of over 500 Eastern European Jews over the age of 95 along with 700 of their descendants.
More than two hundred centenarians (average age 97.6 years, 75% women) completed questionnaires. They exhibited a positive attitude toward life — they were optimistic, easygoing and outgoing — and had an ability to express their emotions. They did not display neurotic personalities and, compared with a similar sample of centenarians in the United States, they displayed a high level of conscientiousness.
One of the researchers — Nir Barzilai, MD, director of the Institute for Aging Research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University — made this comment, “[These centenarians] considered laughter an important part of life and had a large social network. They expressed emotions openly rather than bottling them up.”
Research #34: Social engagement lowers risk of death
This analysis used data from a survey titled Americans’ Changing Lives, as well as mortality statistics for 1986-2005. It revealed that people who had high levels of social engagement were at a lower risk of death compared to those with less social interaction, even after controlling for other predictors of mortality.
Conclusions we can Draw from the Studies
Just three studies, but all of them suggest that having social interactions is important for lifelong health and contentment. Finding ways to interact with others is important: from attending fitness class, to playing bridge, to taking a walk with your grandchild. Individuals who find a variety of social outlets are definitely enhancing the quality of their lives and most likely lengthening it.
- Motivation: How do we stay involved in physical activities?
- Reasons why some Older Adults don't stay in Exercise: And reasons why they should
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
That is not to say that we will rid ourselves of various medical conditions — it just means we will be better able to tolerate and monitor them. ↩︎