As the holidays approach, the results of a newly published study offer a reminder of the importance of social connections. In fact, in some cases, it could be a matter of life and death.
The results also serve as a reminder of the potential benefits of senior living.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow have found that older adults who never are visited by friends and family are at a higher risk of dying. They shared the findings of their research in the journal BMC Medicine, suggesting that they could be used to help identify people at a higher risk of dying due to social factors and to develop more effective interventions to combat the increased risk of death associated with social isolation.
The investigators used data from 458,146 adults recruited to UK Biobank to investigate the association between mortality and five types of social interaction based on participants’ answers to questions about subjective measures (how often they were able to confide in someone close to them and how often they felt lonely) as well as objective measures (how often they were visited by friends and family, how often they participated in a weekly group activity, and whether they lived alone).
After a median 12.6 years follow-up, 33,135 of the participants had died.
The authors found that all five types of social interaction were independently associated with mortality from any cause. And overall, increased mortality was more strongly associated with low levels of the objective measures of social interaction compared with low levels of the subjective measures.
The strongest association, however, was for individuals who never were visited by friends or family; they were at a 39% associated increased risk of death.
Disappointingly, the benefit of participating in weekly group activities was not observed in participants who never had friends or family visit — participants who never received visits but joined group activities had a comparable associated increased risk of death to those who had no visits and joined no activities (50% and 49% respectively).
Participants who received friend or family visits on at least a monthly basis, however, had a significantly lower associated increased mortality risk, suggesting that this social interaction potentially had a protective effect.
“Our findings suggest that advice, interventions and policy may need to be tailored to address different aspects of social connection and target the highest-risk groups,” they wrote. “Specifically, we show that separate measures of different components of social connection may contribute different levels of risk of adverse health outcomes, and the combined associations and interactions of the measures examined here suggest that those who live alone with additional concurrent markers of structural isolation may represent a population who could benefit from targeted support.”
Perhaps, for older adults living in the greater community, that support could come in the form of a move to a senior living community? Previous industry efforts have touted the socialization-related benefits of the setting.
As one example, a summer 2022 report from the American Seniors Housing Association and ATI Advisory found that senior living communities improved quality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic through cohesive social environments and encouragement of residents to participate in social activities. Residents, the study found, were more likely to have greater social, physical and intellectual wellness than their counterparts living in the greater community.
As next steps for research, the University of Glasgow authors suggested that studies could examine the effects of other types of social interaction on mortality or explore how much change in a type of interaction is needed to best benefit socially isolated people. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to keep in mind this study’s findings as the industry works to improve residents’ quality of life.
Lois A. Bowers is the editor of McKnight’s Senior Living. Read her other columns here.