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How Social Ties Affect Disability in Later Life
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Jan 21st 2014
When I talk about wellness, I often describe dimensions such as emotional wellness, physical wellness, and spiritual wellness separately. But total wellbeing is much more than keeping all of these ducks in a row. True wellness is achieved when these dimensions work together. When spiritual and vocational wellness interact, for example, we find ourselves making a living by fulfilling our true calling.
In fact, it's inevitable for these dimensions to exist independently of each other. Each dimension - emotional, physical, social, spiritual, vocational, intellectual, and environmental - impacts each of the other dimensions, for better or worse.
This idea was demonstrated in a recent study about the relationship between social ties and late life disability. The researchers studied over 5,000 people over the age of 65 for a period of 9 years. Social ties were studied in terms of the size of a person's social network as well as level of social engagement. The researchers also looked at health status, depression, and the onset and progression of disability over time.
Check out these results:
- A broader social network was linked to a lower risk of disability onset; however, after disability occurred, the social network did not affect the progression of disability. A person's health status seemed to make this finding more pronounced.
- A higher level of social engagement was linked to a lower risk of disability onset; also, if disability occurred, social engagement was linked to slower progression of disability. This finding was significant regardless of the person's health status.
- Regardless of health status, depression was linked to a higher risk of disability onset; however, it did not seem to impact rate of progression of the disability.
What do we make of this? This is a perfect example of how social wellness affects physical wellbeing. Having a broad social network and staying actively engaged with it appears to lower our chances of developing a disability in later life, while depression seems to increase our risk of becoming disabled. However, once disability has set in, only social engagement impacts the rate at which the disability progresses.
This makes sense to me, and it speaks to the importance of prevention. If we cultivate a strong social network of family and friends and stay engaged with those people (in other words, we don't let those relationships lapse), our overall wellbeing is strengthened, which makes us less vulnerable to disability. It also means that we have people who care about us and keep us accountable to take care of ourselves. This can also reduce risk of disability.
But disability can't always be prevented. In those cases, staying in touch with our social network - whether in person, over the phone, or online - may make us stronger and keep us at a higher level of functioning even in the face of disability.
What's the take-away? Nurture your relationships now - don't wait. The dividends may reach far beyond that simple email or a cup of coffee with a friend.
Mendes de Leon, C. F., & Rajan, K. B. (2014). Psychosocial influences in onset and progression of late life disability. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Advance access: doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbt130