While the move to an independent living community is often prompted by something else, the benefit that it brings from a social perspective cannot be overstated. In fact, that may be one of the greatest benefits.
If you think that having good health is all about eating, exercise and medicine-think again. We all have a basic need to feel connected to other people. And it turns out social connections may be at least as important, if not more as these other commonly accepted health practices.
We are all aging, but that does not mean we have to become isolated or stop enjoying the company of others. New friends and renewed relationships with family can help to make the older years a time of growth and renewal.
Impact on Health
There are four things we know about connection between social relations and health:
1) Isolation is a powerful risk factor for poor health
2) Social support has direct positive effects on health
3) Social support can buffer some of the health related effects of aging
4) No single type of support is uniformly effective to all people, but some general principles apply
Alameda County Study
Having good social ties is actually directly related to physical health and has a positive ‘buffering effect’ even if there are other stresses in play or adverse life style choices have been made, such as smoking or excessive drinking.
Of course, exercise levels, smoking and diet are all important factors in determining your health, but a major piece of research (Berkman and Syme, 1989) found that the powerful influence of social support on health outcomes seems to be largely independent of how much your family and friends actually encourage you to make healthy life style choices.
The study tracked 7,000 residents of Almeda County, California over a nine year period. The research looked at their health habits, the number of social ties and close friends they had, the level of group contact such as church attendance they had, and whether they were married.
The death rates of the study group seemed to be clearly and directly associated with the number of social ties of each individual. Quantity came out as more significant than quality. People with few ties to others had mortality rates two to five times higher than better connected people.
This strong link between social ties and death rates was independent of more traditional mortality indicators such as smoking, drinking, exercise and obesity. The link applied to both sexes, all ethnic groups and in a 17 year follow up appeared to hold good all the way into old age.
Social connections have been shown to lower the risk of multiple health conditions including:
• Heart disease
Additionally, a person with better social connections will require less pain medicine after surgery and will recover more quickly.
MacArthur Foundation-Successful Aging Study
In the MacArthur Foundation study on Successful Aging, John Rowe and Robert Kahn describe the importance of social support for our health. The authors point out that having a strong social support system is important at any age starting with infancy and continuing long into the older years. Those who have strong social support tend to have fewer illnesses and to live longer, healthier lives.
We are hardwired to interact with others. This is important throughout the lifespan. Babies who are fed but not adequately held will have, at the very least, developmental problems. Older adults who are isolated are more likely to die.
As we grow older, significant losses of those in our inner circle are more likely and replacing that kind of support can be a challenge. The loss of a spouse, who can tend to be our strongest support person, is particularly difficult. The advice of successful agers in this instance is to get outside of ourselves and be a support to others. The need to be a giver of support as well as a receiver is very strong and can also be a predictor of good health.
Independent living provides direct access to a social network with plenty of opportunity for social connections and better well-being.