Studies have shown that formal social participation (meaning active participation in established organizations) can reduce the risk of chronic conditions among older adults. However, research has not uncovered how this works. A recent study investigated whether social participation reduces the risk of chronic disease among those age 50 and better through its effects on depression and quality of life.
The study sample is from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). This is a bi-annual, longitudinal survey of community-dwelling individuals age 50 and better. This study used data on 28,982 participants from study Waves 4 (2011), 5 (2013), and 6 (2015), when participating countries were Austria, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Estonia. Key survey questions related to chronic health conditions, formal social participation, quality of life, and depressive symptoms. Formal social participation was defined as participation in voluntary or charity work, attending educational or training courses, taking part in activities through a religious organization, and taking part in a political activities or activities within a community organization. Frequency of participation was also assessed, with respondents indicating almost daily, almost every week, almost every month, and less frequent activity.
As anticipated from previous studies, formal social participation in 2011 was associated with lower levels of chronic conditions in 2015. In line with study hypotheses, formal social participation in 2011 predicted higher quality of life in 2013 and quality of life predicted lower levels of chronic conditions in 2015. Similarly, formal social participation in 2011 also predicted lower levels of depressive symptoms, which in turn predicted lower levels of chronic conditions in 2015. While depressive symptoms and quality of life explained some of the relationship between formal social participation and chronic conditions, additional factors likely have a role as well. The study authors suggested that physical activity, loneliness, and social support—all factors that were not measured in this study—may also be involved.
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Santini ZI, Jose PE, Koyanagi A, Meilstrup C, Nielsen L, Madsen KR, Koushede V. Formal social participation protects physical health through enhanced mental health: A longitudinal mediation analysis using three consecutive waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). Social Science & Medicine, (2020); Mar 3; 251(C).