Support from friends and family affects mental and physical health

We know that having supportive friends and family means that, in general, older people will be healthier, less likely to develop cognitive problems, and more likely to live longer. On the other hand, loneliness and isolation are the precursors of worse mental and physical health. We were able to use the responses to the first two questionnaires to consider the background to loneliness and ill health.

First, we looked at whether differences in living standards, sex, and age, might affect the types of social networks that people have (for example, some people have family based networks, and others have family and a wider range of friends). Here we found that people living in hardship were less likely to report wide ranging networks.

Secondly, we examined how these types of networks affect the feelings of being supported that people report, and how they affect their feelings of loneliness. Those who felt the least lonely had wider friendship networks, or friendships based on local social activities. Those who reported the most loneliness and least sense of support depended on restricted, self-contained, or family dependent types of social networks.

Thirdly, we looked at how these feelings of support or loneliness are affecting people’s health. As expected, feelings of support such as attachment and being reassured of worth, were related to better health. Those who felt more lonely had poorer physical and mental health.

The importance of these results is to show that healthy social support does not just depend on the individual person. There are also changes needed in the shape of our broader society, which includes addressing growing inequalities in the economic standard of living.

Stephens, C., Alpass, F., Towers, A., & Stevenson, B. (2011). The effects of types of social networks, perceived social support, and loneliness on the health of older people: Accounting for the social context. Journal of Aging and Health, 23 (6), 887-911. DOI: 10.1177/0898264311400189

On March 19, 2012, posted in: Gerontology Research by