There are some clear risk factors that lead to an earlier death such as smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity. But are there other factors that influence health and wellness later in life – behaviors that researchers have yet to study?
Until recently, one of those unknown factors was social relationships. Anecdotal evidence suggested that people with strong social relationships reduced their risk of mortality, but there was little evidence to back up the suggestion. While many medical studies included a measure of social isolation, no one had looked at the issue on a broader scale.
That is, until researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a systematic review of the literature on how social relationships impact the risk of dying later in life. They reviewed 148 studies that included more than 300,000 participants that included information about how people died, their initial health status and pre-existing health conditions, as well as type of assessment of social relationships.
Over all the data they reviewed, they found a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships. The lack of social relationships had more influence on mortality rates that other risk factors like physical activity and obesity.
The researchers noted that more complex measurements of social relationships – instead of simple indications such as marital status – were more predictive of death.
The take-home message is that your relationships later in life are just as important as what you eat and drink, how much exercise you get, and other important health behaviors. More research is needed to determine how relationships improve well-being, and specific characteristics that contribute to the trend. In the meantime, it’s important for medical professionals to consider social relationships in their treatment plans for older adults.