Having friends enhances happiness, sound health

Created date

February 16th, 2017
Two senior friends in their gardening hats.

Two senior friends in their gardening hats.

Edith C. remembers how she used to have a long list of friends. “When I was a child in school, making friends was effortless,” she says. “While I was working and raising my two children, it was also easy. I spent time with my closest friends practically every weekend.”

Like many seniors, Edith C.’s list of friends has decreased as the years go by. Relocation, retirement, or simply drifting apart from your friends are common reasons. “Socializing with friends can take a back seat to other priorities,” says Matt Narrett, M.D., chief medical officer for Erickson Living. “You may be dealing with poor health for you and your spouse, or close friends and family may have passed away.”

These barriers can be compounded by the fact that many seniors live alone and may not be able to get out easily.

A factor for good health

“Over the past 50 years, we have learned how important eating right, exercising, and preventive health measures are to being healthy and independent,” Narrett says. “More recently, however, we have learned that social engagement is another significant factor in maintaining robust health.”

Emerging research shows us that social engagement plays a substantial role in your overall well-being, your self-esteem, and your longevity. “Being actively engaged with other people actually improves your health,” says Jennifer Tam, M.D., medical director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Hingham, Mass. “Research shows that spending time with others can lower the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression. Scientists reviewed over 100 studies and found that people who are active socially are 50% less likely to die prematurely.

Researchers aren’t sure why having friends is associated with better health. It may be because you are more active, and physical activity has numerous positive effects on your body. Being around others also tends to boost your mood, and happiness has been linked to sound health.

A requirement, not an option

Although it may not seem like a prime concern, you need to connect with others to maintain your health and functioning. Research shows that social isolation has similar effects as other risk factors for poor health such as obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. In addition, a lack of socializing is directly linked to decreased immune function, worsening cognitive function, and poor physical functioning. 

Senior-friendly social activities

Your social skills may have become a little rusty, so forming new contacts can certainly be a challenge, or you may have difficulty getting out because of physical limitations. “You can use the computer or talk on the phone,” Narrett suggests. “Interacting directly in person, though, has been found to be the most beneficial.” 

If you can combine socializing with a physical or mental activity, you may reap more health benefits. “Doing something simple and easy such as taking a walk, playing cards, or having a book discussion, are all excellent ways to socialize and meet new friends,” Narrett says.

A large study of adults age 57 to 85 found that the three most popular social activities were talking with neighbors, participating in faith-based activities, and volunteering.  “All three of these are associated with better health,” Narrett says.  

Other senior-friendly activities, including dining in restaurants, playing bingo, and caring for grandchildren, can also boost physical and cognitive health.

Not everyone enjoys mingling. “Some people are introverts and that’s not likely to change,” Tam says. “Keeping in touch with family is a simple solution. Having regular meals now and then is a good way to stay socially connected.”

Choose a hobby or an enjoyable activity. “Figure out how to do what you like with other people,” Tam says. “Getting at least one foot in the door makes it easier to become accustomed to interpersonal interaction.”

Introverts may find it easy to use social media to meet people. “You need to exercise caution when forming friendships online,” Tam says. “Many seniors have been duped and suffered serious consequences.” 

Help for what hinders you

Many chronic health conditions and medications can result in fatigue or other unpleasant symptoms. Arthritis, for example, may cause joint pain that keeps you from getting out and about. This is where your doctor comes in. “Your doctor can give you a thorough checkup and review your medications to determine if there is a way to make it easier for you to socialize,” Tam says. 

You might be depressed and unaware of it, or your vision and hearing may be worsening. These conditions can be treated. “The key is to recognize that you aren’t socializing as much as you’d like to and to share that with your doctor,” Narrett says. “Getting out will surely help you feel better.”