Moms are often the ones coaxing their children to play with other kids and to play nice. Science is now proving that mom’s friendship-prodding can actually save your life one day.
Establishing and maintaining social connections as they grow older helps both men and women stay healthier, age well and live longer.
Harvard Women’s Health Watch in 2010 reported on a study that examined data from more than 309,000 people. The analysis revealed that those without satisfying family ties or social bonds with friends, neighbors or colleagues are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely. The mortality risk is comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.
Researchers have long noted how social interaction affects mental and physical health. Going it alone is linked to depression, higher blood pressure and cognitive decline with age. Countering an isolated life with rewarding relationships does more than increase longevity. Personal companionship is shown to:
• Boost the immune system.
• Improve cardiovascular health.
• Release stress-reducing hormones.
• Enhance nutrition and digestion.
• Regulate the body’s blood sugar level.
• Lift self-esteem.
• Decrease the length of hospital stays.
A widespread Swedish study noted that people 75 and older who continue with meaningful connections to family and friends also exhibit reduced dementia risk. Overall, social support helps seniors take better care of themselves.
“Sharing your ups and downs with trusted others lightens the load of daily living,” said Gene Lennon, owner of Right at Home Santa Clara County, which offers in-home companionship and personal care and assistance to seniors and disabled adults who want to continue to live independently. “We find this especially true with the older adults we serve. Many seniors struggle with the loss of a spouse, decreased mobility and a diminished outlook for the future. I’m always encouraged to see how extending a kindness, a listening ear and caring friendship helps older loved ones stay happier and healthier.”
Tips for cultivating relationships
As scientists continue to investigate the health benefits for seniors who engage with others, the positive news is that cultivating a companionship circle is possible at any age. Right at Home offers the following relationship-building tips.
• Foster relationships that bring joy. Life is too short to surround yourself with negative, grumpy people. Bond more with people who truly make you smile.
• Mentor someone. Thousands of people from children to senior citizens could benefit from coaching in reading, math or life skills.
• Volunteer. Volunteers are needed at animal shelters, hospitals, libraries and schools.
• Join group activities. Recreation and senior centers offer dozens of activities to enjoy with others, from museum and zoo tours to park picnics and sporting events.
• Invite others for coffee or a meal. Aim for a once-a-week gathering. Meet out, dine in or make a simple meal together.
• Develop a solid rapport with grandchildren and younger adults. Learn about each other’s interests and enjoy fun activities together. Ask each other for help or advice (e.g., about cooking, computers, falling in love, etc.).
• Share family histories and photo albums. Take time to recall classic family adventures. Put together a family photo album and make copies for everyone in the family.
• Include friends and family in everyday routines. Need to run errands? Invite along a companion. Routinely walk? Grab a partner. Common tasks and exercise sessions are typically more fun when shared with others.
• Fall in love with a pet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Journal of American Geriatrics report that pet companionship improves the physical health and mental well-being of older adults.
Experts advise that having hundreds of Facebook and email friends does not ensure the same health benefits as engaging with others in regular, face-to-face contact. While it may be fun to message and post online, a smile, a hug, a couple of laughs or sage advice may well protect the memory and lengthen longevity.
As you age, continue to play well with others, because they are true lifesavers.