Can Social Connections Help You Live Longer?
Humans are social beings. For many of us, the majority of our life is spent around other people. Whether it’s family, friends, work colleagues, or casual acquaintances, human interaction is a daily occurrence. However, this becomes harder to keep up as we get older. When someone retires, or moves away from their long-term community, it’s much more difficult to meet new people. This can lead to a sense of loneliness and isolation. Not only is this unpleasant, it can have serious impacts on mental and physical health. It’s therefore vital for seniors to maintain some social connections.
Older adults’ health is closely linked to social relationships. In this article we’ll examine why maintaining these bonds is so important. We’ll also cover some examples of elderly people taking matters into their own hands, often in surprising ways.
Social Relationships and Health
Various studies have shown that, ‘social relationships—both quantity and quality—affect mental health, health behavior, physical health, and mortality risk.’ There are multiple factors that contribute towards this effect and how they are present throughout various countries. Adults with more social connections are generally healthier than those who are more isolated. They also live longer. In terms of quality of relationships, those who have emotional support and help with conflict resolution also fare better.
One surprising study demonstrated that those people with the lowest level of social interaction are more likely to die than those with greater social involvement. Another similar study showed that the risk of death for individuals with the least amount of social ties was nearly double that of those with the most connections. Not only is mortality a factor, other health issues are associated with social isolation. A low amount of, or low of quality social ties could be linked to issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and even cancer.
It’s clear that as humans, we need social connections for our mental wellbeing, as well as our physical health. As we mentioned in our introduction, this can become difficult the older we get. This is why some elderly folk are taking matters into their own hands.
Japan’s Old Age Prisoners
Japan has a problem. Its population is getting older, and it’s declining. Back in 2014, more than 22% of the population was 65 or older. This of course has implications for the future, with some experts predicting the population will plummet (and continue to age) over the next 50 years. Who is going to care for this aging population? There is a rising trend of people, particularly elderly people, living alone. This has resulted in a rather strange phenomenon; a rise in crime by seniors.
This rise in old age prisoners is the result of petty theft carried out by previously law-abiding elderly people—primarily women. As the Bloomberg article explains, many of these women are suffering from loneliness, social isolation, and a lack of community. These are problems that all seem to be addressed by a stay in prison. Although a strange way to escape, these, ‘lonely seniors are shoplifting in search of the community and stability of jail.’
China’s Lack of Nursing Homes
Japan isn’t the only country with an aging population. China’s populace is getting older at a rate above everywhere else in the world. Not only does this bring with it a wide range of economic strains, there is a very real problem of loneliness and social solitude among some of China’s elderly.
A recent study found that around 28% of older Chinese citizens felt lonely. The study found that loneliness ‘affects and is affected by social activities, solitary leisure activities, physical exercise, emotional health, self-rated health, and functional limitations.’ This was evident in a recent story from Tianjin, China where an 85-year-old Chinese Grandfather was searching for someone to adopt him.
Han Zicheng’s loneliness led him to post a notice on a local bus shelter looking for a family to take him in. He showed regret for what he sees as a shift in family values in China. According to him, the elderly are no longer part of an extended family that would care for them. Instead, they are left to die alone in their beds. This is the case for many others as well, as the retirement home industry is still in its infancy in China, and has seen a lack of nurses and care staff.
Fighting Back Against Loneliness
It’s clear that social connections are a vital part of our lives, from birth to old age. That’s why some elderly people in London are doing their best to fight off the risk of ending up in solitude. An East London night club for the elderly has sprung up. There, people over the age of 60 congregate once a week to party. The club’s promoters have opened it as an anti-loneliness campaign.
A weekly night club session gives elderly citizens the chance to socialize and have fun. It’s a fantastic idea, and the club’s attendees seemingly love the time they spend there. The club demonstrates the power that social ties have in our lives, and how easily they can be lost and rekindled.
The UK is taking loneliness in the elderly community very seriously, having recently elected a ‘Minister for Loneliness’ to combat the problems associated with isolation among the elderly. The minister will further examine the effects and extent of loneliness in UK citizens, and implement steps to minimize the impact.
Social Connections Among the Elderly
As we’ve seen, there is a real problem across the globe with loneliness and social isolation. Not only does it have a huge impact on mental wellbeing, there are proven impacts on physical health. As populations age, it’s vital that governments and their citizens protect the elderly from the dangers of loneliness. Humans are social beings, and the connections we make provide a variety of important benefits. Awareness needs to be raised about the ill effects that social isolation brings.
As our understanding of elderly isolation grows, we will be better prepared to help those who are suffering. Thankfully, it seems that some communities are already taking steps to address the situation. Is yours?