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Social Networks Usually Linked to Better Health for Older Adults, Studies Find

Special edition of Health Psychology packed with studies of senior citizens and their relationships

June 4, 2014 - Having regular positive interactions with family and friends and being involved in several different social networks can help older adults be healthier, according to numerous new research reports to be published by the American Psychological Association this month. However, negative social interactions can present health risks.

 “Close connections with others are likely to promote but can also sometimes detract from good health by shaping daily behavior that directly affects physical health,” said Lynn M. Martire, PhD, of The Pennsylvania State University.

Martire and Melissa M. Franks, PhD, of Purdue University, were guest editors for a special June issue of APA’s Health Psychology.

“In some cases, the behavior may have to do with physical activity and in others, it might be related to diet or managing a chronic disease, such as diabetes,” Martire added.

The influence of social relationships on mortality risk is comparable to that of smoking and alcohol consumption, according to previous research. Many questions remain, however, such as how social networks come about and the nature of the relationships, Martire and Franks point out in “The Role of Social Networks in Adult Health: Introduction to the Special Issue (PDF, 56KB).” 

The studies and some of the key findings include:

“Negative Social Interactions and Incident Hypertension Among Older Adults (PDF, 112KB)” by Rodlescia S. Sneed, PhD, and Sheldon Cohen, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon University.

In a national sample of approximately 1,500 older adults - age 50 and over - negative social interactions were associated with a greater risk for hypertension among women and individuals ages 51 to 64.

 

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Excessive demands, criticism and disappointment were examples of negative social interactions. These kinds of unpleasant encounters could be linked to hypertension in older adults because of their psychological effects, such as depression and general unhappiness, according to the study. Negative social interactions have also been linked to harmful coping behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and less physical activity, the study says.

 “Social Relationships, Leisure Activity, and Health in Older Adults (PDF, 103KB)” by Po-Ju Chang, PhD, Linda Wray, PhD, and Yeqiang Lin, MA, The Pennsylvania State University.

Social networks are associated with more involvement in leisure activities, which in turn, can lead to better health in older adults, according to this study. Leisure activities, defined as an activity not involving pay, could be as ordinary as home maintenance or cooking.

Researchers examined data from 2,965 older Americans, who were interviewed by telephone in 2006 and again in 2010. In 2010, they were on average 70 years old, 55 percent female, 59 percent married and 84 percent white.

Leisure activities involving physical exercise were the most beneficial. Physical health was measured by the participants’ body mass index, number of diagnosed chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, and responses to questions about their overall health.

 “Social Integration and Pulmonary Function in the Elderly (PDF, 94KB)” by Crista N. Crittenden,  PhD, Sheldon Cohen, PhD, and Denise Janicki-Deverts, PhD, Carnegie Mellon University; Sarah D. Pressman, PhD, Bruce W. Smith, PhD, University of New Mexico; and Teresa E. Seeman, PhD, University of California, Irvine.

While previous research has found that marriage can be good for people’s pulmonary health as they age, it’s not the only social connection that plays a role in older adults’ lung function, this study found.

Having several different social roles, such as employee, parent, club member, church member and volunteer, was also linked to better lung function.

“What mattered most was the diversity of roles with which the person identifies, irrespective of which specific roles are involved,” the study said.

Researchers examined data from a MacArthur Research Network study of 1,147 seniors, average age 74, of whom 55 percent were women, 48 percent were married, 19 percent were non-white and 19 percent were employed. To be included, participants had to be physically active and alert with no disabilities. Data about their social activities were collected in face-to-face interviews during which lung function was measured. 

Other reports include the following.

 “Dyadic Collaboration in Shared Health Behavior Change: The Effects of a Randomized Trial to Test a Lifestyle Intervention for High-Risk Latinas (PDF, 110KB)” by Dara H. Sorkin, PhD, Karen S. Rook, PhD, Kelly A. Biegler, PhD, David Kilgore, MD, and Emily Dow, MD, University of California, Irvine; Shahrzad Mavandadi, PhD, Philadelphia VA Medical Center and University of Pennsylvania; and Quyen Ngo-Metzger, MD, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration.  

 “Who Needs a Friend? Marital Status Transitions and Physical Health Outcomes in Later Life (PDF, 106KB)” by Jamila Bookwala, PhD, and Kirsten I. Marshall, PhD, Lafayette College; and Suzanne W. Manning, PhD, Fordham University.

 “Physical and Social Activities Mediate the Associations Between Social Network Types and Ventilatory Function in Chinese Older Adults (PDF, 79KB)” by Sheung-Tak Cheng, PhD, Hong Kong Institute of Education; Edward M. F. Leung, MD, United Christian Hospital, Hong Kong; and Trista Wai Sze Chan, MPhil, Indiana University.

 “Social Network Characteristics Associated With Health Promoting Behaviors Among Latinos (PDF, 74KB)” by Becky Marquez, PhD, University of California, San Diego; John P. Elder, PhD, MPH, Elva M. Arredondo, PhD, Hala Madanat, PhD, Ming Ji, PhD, and Guadalupe X. Ayala, PhD, MPH, San Diego State University, San Diego Prevention Research Center and Institute for Behavioral and Community Health, San Diego.

Special Issue: The Role of Social Networks in Adult Health, Health Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 6, June 2014. 

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes nearly 130,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.

 

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