Interacting with a wide range of people — especially acquaintances and non-family members such as caregivers who work for home care agencies — can help keep seniors more active and healthier longer, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin.
The research further reinforces the importance of social determinants of health — economic, social and environmental factors that can influence whether a person becomes sick or needs medical care. There’s a growing push within the health care industry to address these non-medical factors early on, in hopes of reducing spending on health problems down the road.
Studies have long shown that social engagement is good for your health, even linking loneliness to increased mortality comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The University of Texas at Austin study — which looked at more than 300 people over 65 years old living in and around Austin — examined the effect social relationships have on physical activity and emotional well being.
“Most prior research had shown that connections to close friends and family provide the support and emotional connection that enhance well-being,” UT Austin human development and family sciences professor Karen Fingerman, who authored the study, told Home Health Care News in an email. “But we didn’t know whether social partners improve well-being via other pathways.”
Fingerman’s research shows they do: Seniors who interacted with a range of diverse social partners were more physically active and reported feeling more positive moods. Findings from the study were published Feb. 20 in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.
The key to maximizing those social benefits lies in the variety of people seniors interacted with, the study showed. In other words, engaging with “weak” ties, or acquaintances, yielded the best results.
“Engagement with acquaintances made people more active than engagement with family or friends,” Fingerman, who is also the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s new Aging & Longevity Center, said. “We have long known the benefits of family and friends in old age — but this study suggests acquaintances add something more and are beneficial for physical health and stimulation.”
As such, the study further proves the importance of home care providers who offer services such as companion care or transportation services — and even startups like Papa, a “grandkids on-demand” business that connects older adults with college students who provide social support and help with errands.
“All of these folks could be good for older adults’ well-being,” Fingerman said. “They are the type of ‘weak ties’ and acquaintances that help account for the findings.”