How Social Networks Reduce Negative Health Effects of Aging

Photo via Apple Tree Dental

This week’s trivia question asks whether social interactions and friendships help reduce the negative health effects of aging. The answer is yes! Many human development and gerontology researchers have determined that our biology (i.e., genetics, physical health), our psychology (i.e., cognitive functioning and health), and social influences each play a role in optimal or successful aging. Through healthy eating habits and exercise, we can improve our physical and cognitive health. But how do social networks play a role?

https://youtu.be/7gkdzkVbuVA
Click on this YouTube video to learn why older adults are happier than their younger counterparts.

Several theories point to how older adults become selective with whom they choose to have close social ties (e.g., socioemotional selectivity theory; adult attachment theory). According to these approaches we spend more time and resources on close social supports that are rewarding versus those that are less rewarding. To explain this across adulthood, young adults continually expand their social network as they look towards the future. Middle-adulthood is oftentimes more focused on work relationships. Parents often develop friendships and social networks with other parents from their children’s school or activities. But as we get beyond middle-age, the social network tightens to those relationship that provide value to the older adult. In a way, this is a quality over quantity in the types of relationships that develop over time. “Quality” is focused on how those relationships benefit us in a multitude of ways, including our physical and cognitive health.

According to one micro-longitudinal study (Allen & Windsor, 2017), researchers found that close social supports provide emotional regulation that reduces stress and can help moderate personality traits that contribute to tress. While spending time with family and close friends has positive effects on aging, so too can being involved in intergenerational activities, volunteering or continuing in a career beyond retirement, and attending religious services (see research conducted by Iowa State University’s Daniel Wayne Russell, Ph.D. on loneliness). Reducing social isolation is also key in optimizing aging.

Intergenerational activity photo via Fordham University

So while you’re out there exercising and eating healthier, don’t forget to invite a friend or two…or more. Maintaining social connection within one’s social network is just as important as exercise and diet.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this week’s trivia question. We will be back on Monday with another opportunity cast your vote.

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