Can strong social connections really contribute to your health? As it turns out… yes.
For many women, the only time they get true social interaction is around the holidays or if they attend church or other community events. However, while these are wonderful opportunities to share ideas, get to know, and offer support to those closest to us, it just isn’t enough, especially as you reach your older years.
Socialization and engaging in strong and healthy relationships provide us with pleasure, they contribute to our health, and in fact, socializing can be just as powerful as a healthy diet, exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep.
There has been a multitude of studies on the subject, and they all show that women who have strong social connections with friends and family not only live longer but also experience fewer health issues.
Moreover, a lack of social connection can spell a health disaster, particularly for those entering their older years. In addition to a reduced lifespan, there is a risk of depression and a steep decline in cognitive function.
It is our friendships, relationships, social ties, and human connections that make the most difference in how well we age and even how long we live!
Throughout the continuum of our lives, paying attention to our relationships maybe the most important thing we do, as the happiness and joy they bring play a key role in aging well, and maintaining great health!
The Importance Of Avoiding Social Isolation
We know the risks of obesity and the dangers of smoking are, and there are measures in place to take care of both of those issues, but when was the last time your doctor asked if you were socializing enough?
The aging women population is highly susceptible to social isolation that can result in depression and loneliness. Strong social ties, healthy and happy relationships, and human connections make a huge impact on all facets of human health.
One study that used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing reports that socially isolated or lonely older women are more likely to engage in risky behavior, including unhealthy diet choices, lack of exercise, and smoking while those with strong social support do the opposite and make healthier lifestyle choices.
Women over 50 who feel isolated and lonely tend to report mental and physical health issues more often (Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health among Older Adults; Erin York Cornwell and Linda J. Waite).
According to the National Council on Aging, “Socially isolated women over 50 are more likely to predict their quality of life will get worse over the next 5-10 years, are more concerned about needing help from community programs as they get older, and are more likely to express concerns about aging in place.”
A report from the British Columbia Ministry of Health states that the death of a spouse, which is common in the aging population, has been found by many studies to increase the surviving partner’s risks of social and emotional isolation.
Numerous studies have found that socially active women enjoy much better health :
• Socially active women are more likely to exercise and avoid chronic conditions such as heart disease and osteoporosis and even rheumatoid arthritis.
• Socially engaged women follow healthier lifestyles and have lower blood pressure.
• Socially active women enjoy better emotional health, with lower risks of emotional decline.
• Strong relationships and an active social life helps keep the mind sharp, improves cognitive function, and lowers risks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Isolation, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, besides the mental health aspects in increasing risks of depression and cognitive decline, it can also cause physical ailments, and even shorten lifespan.
AARP reports that we are facing an epidemic that no one is talking about. Since the 1980s, the statistics show that loneliness has increased by 20%. It has doubled from 20% to 40%.
Loneliness can lead to depression, and depression can lead to loneliness. It’s a vicious cycle that anyone can fall into, but as we age, we are at greater risk due to ticking more risk factor boxes being ticked than at any other time of your life.
Loneliness has more of an impact on early death than obesity. It increases a person’s chance of premature death by 14%. These are just 2 of the findings recorded by Professor of Psychology, John Cacioppo, at the University of Chicago.
Studies from the University of Cambridge have found that the risk of early death from loneliness is equal to that of smoking, while it’s almost twice as dangerous to your lifespan as obesity.
Additionally, the University of Chicago (Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms; Hawkley et al.) has found that social isolation increases inflammation, which can cause arthritis, heart disease, and even type 2 diabetes, as well as impair the function of your immune system.
Studies have found that women suffering from loneliness suffer more micro-awakenings, suggesting that even in their sleep, their brain is on high alert in case of perceived threats. This is likely an evolutionary throwback from the days where we needed to be aware of our surroundings when sleeping in the open and separated from their pack.
Social isolation complicates the aging process and increases the risks of illness and poor health. This is especially true when it’s a spouse that passes away, which means that our friendships and human connections are more important than ever, as is building new friendships and bonding socially.
Fortunately, there are some simple and proven tips and strategies for avoiding loneliness and its inherent health dangers.
When you know the secrets of nurturing your existing relationships, building strong socialization skills, staying socially active, and making new connections, your mind, body, and emotions all benefit.
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Judith Gates, Editor