In a study that earned a 2020 Bronze Innovative Research on Aging Award, researchers investigated how and why social support influences older adults’ health.
The study used data from two waves of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP). The first wave was in 2005-2006 and the second wave was in 2010-2011. Older adults self-reported their mental health and completed a measure of social support from friends, family, and spouse. Social support included being able to open up to others and rely on others for support. Blood samples were also collected from participants; this study analyzed blood levels of the c-reactive protein biomarker. Higher levels of c-reactive protein signals chronic inflammation, which is associated with cardiovascular disease risk. The sample included 1,124 adults ages 57 to 85 (average 69 years). About half were female and most were white (81%).
Greater social support in wave 1 was related to higher self-esteem, better mental health, and lower inflammation at that time. These three outcomes in wave 1 were in turn related to better mental health and lower inflammation in wave 2. In other words, social support influenced future mental health and inflammation by way of enhancing current self-esteem, mental health, and inflammation. The analyses also accounted for demographic characteristics, such as age and gender, as well as healthy behaviors and health conditions.
Many studies have found evidence linking social support to better health outcomes. This study offered an explanation for why this is the case. By improving self-esteem and mental health and reducing inflammation, social support works to maintain these benefits over time. Considering these benefits, it is important even now that older adults work to foster strong social connections with their family and friends. Connecting virtually can be challenging, but being able to open up to and rely on others can go a long way. Additionally, supportive relationships can be bi-directional, meaning it’s not only beneficial for one’s own health, but for others’ health as well.
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Kim S and Thomas PA. Direct and indirect pathways from social support to health? Journals of Gerontology: Series B (2019), 74(6), 1072-1080.