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Social networks linked to better health for older adults

May 28, 2014
American Psychological Association (APA)
Having regular positive interactions with family and friends and being involved in several different social networks can help older adults be healthier, according to new research. A special edition of a psychology journal covers the role of social networks in the health of elderly people.

Having regular positive interactions with family and friends and being involved in several different social networks can help older adults be healthier, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

"Close connections with others are likely to promote but can also sometimes detract from good health by shaping daily behavior that directly affects physical health," said Lynn M. Martire, PhD, of The Pennsylvania State University. Martire and Melissa M. Franks, PhD, of Purdue University, were guest editors for a special issue of APA's Health Psychology coming out in June. "In some cases, the behavior may have to do with physical activity and in others, it might be related to diet or managing a chronic disease, such as diabetes," Martire added.

The influence of social relationships on mortality risk is comparable to that of smoking and alcohol consumption, according to previous research. Many questions remain, however, such as how social networks come about and the nature of the relationships, Martire and Franks point out in "The Role of Social Networks in Adult Health: Introduction to the Special Issue."

The studies and some of the key findings include:

"Negative Social Interactions and Incident Hypertension among Older Adults" by Rodlescia S. Sneed, PhD, and Sheldon Cohen, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon University. In a national sample of approximately 1500 adults older than 50, negative social interactions were associated with a greater risk for hypertension among women and individuals ages 51 to 64. Excessive demands, criticism and disappointment were examples of negative social interactions. These kinds of unpleasant encounters could be linked to hypertension in older adults because of their psychological effects, such as depression and general unhappiness, according to the study. Negative social interactions have also been linked to harmful coping behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and less physical activity, the study said.

"Social Relationships, Leisure Activity and Health in Older Adults" by Po-Ju Chang, PhD, Linda Wray, PhD, and Yeqiang Lin, MA, The Pennsylvania State University. Social networks are associated with more involvement in leisure activities, which in turn, can lead to better health in older adults, according to this study. Leisure activities, defined as an activity not involving pay, could be as ordinary as home maintenance or cooking. Researchers examined data from 2,965 older Americans, who were interviewed by telephone in 2006 and again in 2010. In 2010, they were on average 70 years old, 55 percent female, 59 percent married and 84 percent white. Leisure activities involving physical exercise were the most beneficial. Physical health was measured by the participants' body mass index, number of diagnosed chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes and responses to questions about their overall health.

"Social Integration and Pulmonary Function in the Elderly" by Crista N. Crittenden, PhD, Sheldon Cohen, PhD, and Denise Janicki-Deverts, PhD, Carnegie Mellon University; Sarah D. Pressman, PhD, Bruce W. Smith, PhD, University of New Mexico; and Teresa E. Seeman, PhD, University of California, Irvine. While previous research has found that marriage can be good for people's pulmonary health as they age, it's not the only social connection that plays a role in older adults' lung function, this study found. Having several different social roles, such as employee, parent, club member, church member and volunteer, was also linked to better lung function. "What mattered most was the diversity of roles with which the person identifies, irrespective of which specific roles are involved," the study said. Researchers examined data from a MacArthur Research Network study of 1,147 adults, average age 74, of whom 55 percent were women, 48 percent were married, 19 percent were non-white and 19 percent were employed. To be included, participants had to be physically active and alert with no disabilities. Data about their social activities were collected in face-to-face interviews during which lung function was measured.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Psychological Association (APA). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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American Psychological Association (APA). "Social networks linked to better health for older adults." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 May 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140528102932.htm>.
American Psychological Association (APA). (2014, May 28). Social networks linked to better health for older adults. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 28, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140528102932.htm
American Psychological Association (APA). "Social networks linked to better health for older adults." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140528102932.htm (accessed August 28, 2014).

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