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InPsych 2016 | Vol 38

Cover feature : Psychology and older adults

Social connectedness and health in later life

It is no surprise that we seek to connect with other people, as social ties are central to what makes us human. What is surprising to many is just how much these ties matter. It is not simply that they make our lives worth living. They are vital to extending that life, getting under our skin to buffer health and wellbeing, and build resilience in the face of the various challenges we encounter. This is the verdict from an extensive range of studies looking at the effects of social relationships longitudinally, experimentally and meta-analytically. Moreover, these relationships appear to matter more as we age, when our vulnerability to ill health increases.

Longitudinal studies provide the first source of evidence of the curative potential of social connectedness. These have found that being more socially connected reduces the risk of mortality (Umberson & Montez, 2010), memory decline (Ertel, Glymour & Berkman, 2008), and depression (Cruwys et al., 2013). Studies have shown that active engagement in one’s social network is more important for health than network size or diversity. Supporting this, Barnes, Mendes de Leon, Wilson, Bienias, and Evans (2004) observed that while the rate of cognitive decline was reduced by 39 per cent in older people who had a large number of networks, there was a much bigger reduction (of 91 per cent) among those who were highly engaged in those networks. Evidence also suggests that group-based social ties (e.g., with family, friendship, community and interest groups) appear to be more protective of cognitive health as we age than our relationships with significant others (e.g., Haslam, Cruwys, &Haslam, 2014).

While these data are correlational, they are backed up by experimental investigations with older adults living in the community and residential care. Here, many studies point to the positive effects that expanding social networks can have on health and wellbeing. For example, our own research has shown that improved mental health and cognitive performance results from active engagement in meaningful social group activity — whether achieved through creation of reminiscence groups to facilitate remembering (Haslam et al., 2010), water clubs to combat dehydration (Gleibs, Haslam, Haslam, & Jones, 2011), men’s clubs to tackle social isolation (Gleibs et al., 2011), ordesignteams to engage residents in decorating communal areas in their home (Haslam et al., 2014; Knight, Haslam & Haslam, 2010).

These experimental data are also striking because they suggest that this ‘social cure’ is not specific to the content of any particular intervention. In the experimental studies discussed above, the benefits were not about the reminiscence, the water, the men’s business, or the design. Instead, the one active ingredient that was common to all was the group. Engaging older people in meaningful group activity enabled them to see themselves not just as another older person, but as an integral member of a social group (e.g., as “us reminiscers”, “us men”) and in this way the group itself became integral to their sense of self. This was evident in the strength of connectedness that developed through involvement in these activities, and it was this increased sense of social identification that was implicated in improvements to health and wellbeing.

There are key lessons from this evidence that we can use as a prescription to keep us mentally active, healthier and resilient as we age. First, while all relationships matter, some are especially protective — namely, our relationships with groups of others in which the bonds are strong and positive. Second, as much as one group can build resilience, having access to multiple groups is even more beneficial. Here, it is social identification — the internalisation of group memberships into one’s sense of self — that is most critical, not the sheer number.

There is also a need to recognise both the curative and harmful potential of groups. Some groups with which we identify strongly can encourage unhealthy behaviours or promote negative perceptions of self (e.g., greater forgetfulness when one’s age is salient). Nevertheless, negative dynamics can still be better managed by ensuring that we understand the social contexts in which they arise and the social psychological mechanisms through which they achieve their impact.

These social connectedness lessons are part of a larger framework informed by social identity theorising and its application to health (see Haslam, Jetten, Cruwys, Dingle, & Haslam, in preparation; Jetten, Haslam, & Haslam, 2012). A core message of this ‘social identity’ approach to health is that we need to redress the imbalance in the health agenda to ensure social factors are seen to be every bit as important as the medical and physical factors that research routinely emphasises. This becomes all the more important if our goal is to thrive, and not just survive, into older adulthood.

The author can be contacted at c.haslam@uq.edu.au

References

  • Barnes, L. L., Mendes de Leon, C. F., Wilson, R. S., Bienias, J.L., & Evans, D. A. (2004). Social resources and cognitive decline in older African Americans and whites. Neurology, 63, 2322–2326.
  • Cruwys, T., Dingle, G., Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., & Morton, T. A. (2013). Social group memberships protect against future depression, alleviate depression symptoms and prevent depression relapse. Social Science and Medicine, 98, 179-186.
  • Ertel, K. A., Glymour, M. M., & Berkman, L. F. (2008). Effects of social integration on preserving memory function in a nationally representative US elderly population. American Journal of Public Health, 98, 1215–1220.
  • Gleibs, I., Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A. & Jones, J. (2011). Water clubs in residential care: Is it the water or the club that enhances health and well-being? Psychology and Health, 26, 1361-1378.
  • Gleibs, I., Haslam, C., Jones, J., Haslam, S. A., McNeil, J., & Connolly, H. (2011). No country for old men? The role of a Gentlemen’s Club in promoting social engagement and psychological well-being in residential care. Aging and Mental Health, 15, 456-466
  • Haslam, C., Cruwys, T., Haslam, S.A. (2014). "The we's have it": Evidence for the distinctive benefits of social ties in enhancing cognitive health in ageing. Social Science and Medicine, 120, 57-66.
  • Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., Bevins, A., Ravenscroft, S., & Tonks, J. (2010). The social treatment: Benefits of group reminiscence and group activity for the cognitive performance and well-being of older adults in residential care. Psychology and Aging, 25, 157-167.
  • Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A., Knight, C., Gleibs, I., Ysseldyk, R., & McCloskey, L. G. (2014). We can work it out: Group decision-making builds social identity and enhances the cognitive performance of care home residents. British Journal of Psychology, 105, 17-34.
  • Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T, Dingle, G. A., & Haslam, S. A. (In preparation). Advancing the social cure; A new psychology of health. Oxford, UK: Taylor and Francis.
  • Knight, C., Haslam, S. A. & Haslam, C. (2010). In home or at home? Evidence that collective decision making enhances older adults’ social identification, well-being and use of communal space when moving to a new care facility. Aging and Society, 30, 1393-1418.
  • Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and Social Behavior, 51, S54-S66.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on December 2016. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.