Aging, Health, and Social Networks

Across the globe, nearly every country of the world is experiencing population aging. According to the United Nations, the number of people aged 60 years or older is expected to increase to more than 2 billion by 2050. While this shift in demographics carries implications for the social and economic makeup of our global society, it is important to also consider the unique health needs of the aging population.

Included among the most pressing health needs for the aged are managing chronic disease, preventing falls, maintaining cognitive function, and ensuring improved quality of life throughout the life span. Of additional importance to healthy aging, particularly in terms of health related quality of life, is the social support older adults receive from their family, friends, and communities. A known contributor to health related quality of life (HRQOL) is the strength of one’s social networks. It has been shown that individuals who report close bonds with family and friends are more likely to positively self-report their health. This was shown to remain true among elderly in the U.S., who reported improved health if they felt satisfied with the support available to them from family members, friends, and their communities.

From the perspective of the elderly, however, changes that occur late in the lifespan also translate to changes in their social networks and their social support. Social networks have been defined to include family members, friends and acquaintances, work and school connections, and relationships built in formal and informal organizations. Among the elderly, connections may be lost for a variety of reasons throughout the aging process, including retirement, limited mobility that prevents participation in previous activities, as well as the aging and death of close connections. Such changes to the social fabric, that a person formerly engaged with, carries implications for the health related quality of life an individual experiences.

For the elderly, a strong social network often translates into diminished feelings of loneliness, support for mental and physical health needs, as well as improved cognitive functioning. The elderly who feel supported by their community are less likely to report feelings of isolation and report better health than those who do not feel supported. With global population aging, ensuring that all individuals age with dignity, respect, and support should be of paramount importance.

The lengthening of the lifespan should also come as an increase in the number of years lived in high quality health. To protect the health of the aging population, concerted efforts should be made on the part of health care providers, communities, governments, families, and friends to ensure that all individuals enter into the late stages of life with the support that is necessary to live positively and healthfully.

Diana Kingsbury is a PhD student and graduate assistant in prevention science at the Kent State University College of Public Health.

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