Social connection has repeatedly been shown to have a positive effect on health and well-being. Researchers investigated how positive social interactions compare to negative social interactions in regard to daily stress responses.
A sample of 93 adults, age 40 to 95 (average age 68) participated in daily 20-minute interviews for 14 consecutive days. During the interviews, participants provided details about their positive and negative social interactions from the previous day. Participants also provided four saliva samples per day, which were used to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEA-S), which counteracts cortisol.
When examining the data, the researchers grouped participants into three cohorts evenly distributed by age—midlife (40 to 59), young-old (60 to 79), and oldest-old (80 to 95). They found that across these groups, positive social interactions were related to less decline in DHEA-S the following day. DHEA-S is generally associated with psychological resilience. Levels of this hormone are higher in the morning and steadily decline throughout the day; less decline in DHEA-S suggests that positive social interactions are important for psychological resilience the following day.
Negative social interactions, however, seemed to have less of an effect on stress response. The oldest-old group, compared to the two younger groups, showed less decline in DHEA-S on days following negative social interactions. Additionally, negative social interactions were related to lower same-day DHEA-S, but only for young-old participants. There was not a connection between cortisol and either positive or negative social interactions.
The findings related to negative social interactions were not entirely clear, but positive social interactions seemed to be consistently important for psychological well-being. Maintaining higher levels of DHEA-S may help to protect against the negative effects of daily stressors. While positive social interactions did not have an immediate effect, the researchers suggested that this type of interaction may help people sleep better or manage their emotions, leading to an effect the following day. This underscores the importance of increasing positive social interactions rather than reducing the negative.
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Polenick CA, Birditt KS, Turkelson A … and Zarit SH. Daily social interactions and HPA axis activity among midlife and older adults. The Gerontologist (2020); Ahead of print.