The Power of Community - Why Human Interaction is so Important for Healthy Aging
Social interaction is a key component of healthy aging. Beyond a cup of coffee, there are many ways for older adults to remain socially connected, among them volunteering, adult education, new hobbies, and volunteering which is an excellent way to stay connected to one’s community and to give back. There are not only documented medical benefits of staying socially engaged, but there are equally well-documented risks associated with a lack of social interaction.
- Loneliness – This is linked to cognitive and functional decline. A study at UC San Francisco found that loneliness becomes a risk factor for functional decline in adults over 60.
- Depression – This can affect people at any age, however, seniors who also experience loneliness are more likely to be impacted and depression has a greater impact on mortality.
- Less movement – Seniors are more likely to be physically active when in a social setting. When people participate in group exercises like yoga classes or walking groups they take greater accountability for their own physical activity. People are less likely to exercise on their own and are more inclined to remain sedentary.
Study after study has confirmed the outside role that human interaction plays in healthy aging. The benefits include:
- Improved mental health – when socially engaged, seniors are less likely to be affected by loneliness and depression. Social isolation can be a key trigger for mental illness. Supportive relationships with friends, family, neighbors, care staff and volunteers can lead to better mental health.
- Improved physical health – when you are more social you naturally move more. Social networks can help control hypertension and improve cardiovascular health. Better heart health can also improve brain health and reduce your risk of dementia. A 2001 study also found that those who were more socially engaged tend to live longer.
- Improved brain health – social interaction can lead to a higher level of cognitive function. In fact, the size of the social network matters. Seniors with larger social networks are less likely to develop dementia compared to those with smaller circles.
- Safety – in social situations, support and assistance are available should they be needed. Older adults also feel more comfortable asking for help from friends and neighbors with whom they socialize
Aging can impact mobility and independence over time, making it harder to keep up with activities and friends. Rather than ask friends and family for help, older adults may disengage and withdraw from their communities, friends, and social activities. Being a part of a community can create a sense of purpose and a gratifying feeling of belonging; it can also encourage continued growth and learning. Enrolling in art classes, joining a book club, or even taking cooking classes can provide exceptional opportunities to be social, learn something new, and stay active.
Want to be social and make an impact? Become a volunteer! Volunteers come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Volunteering can boost self-confidence and decrease the risk of depression. Not only can you learn new skills and make new friends, but volunteering can also lower stress hormone levels. Being a volunteer can be a motivator to make positive health changes and can improve mental and physical health in those over 60 and lead to longer life spans. Many volunteers often feel like they get far more out of volunteering than they give.
Although staying in touch in person is important, during these uncertain times phone calls, snail mail, video calls, email, zoom classes, and meetings can keep you connected. Many programs have moved online and even volunteer opportunities like tutoring can be done remotely. If healthy aging is a priority, be sure to make regular social interactions of all kinds a priority too!