People with active social lives live longer — because they age ‘successfully’

SICHUAN, China — If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, staying busy on Saturday nights could keep the grim reaper out of sight. After studying over 28,000 people, Chinese scientists report frequent socializing may extend the lifespan of older people.

Moreover, the more people socialize the better. Getting together with others almost every day seems to be most conducive when it comes to living a long life, the study finds. These findings are especially timely. In 2017, there were roughly 962 million people worldwide over the age of 60. By the year 2050, estimate predict that this number will double! That means there’s going to be a whole lot of people in the coming decades looking to age and live well. Consequently, considerable attention is going into the concept of “active” or “successful” aging, with virtually all doctors and scientists alike agreeing that an active social life is key to aging “successfully.”

It’s important to note, however, that the vast majority of evidence regarding the health benefits of social activity comes from research involving people in Western countries, with little published data on people in Asia. In an effort to address this data gap, study authors set out to analyze if socialization frequency may have a link to overall survival among a relatively large group of older people living in China.

Socializing more equals more years on Earth

The research team made use of participants involved with the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey (CLHLS). This is an ongoing, prospective nationally representative study of older individuals living independently that began in 1998. However, scientists only started collecting socialization information in 2002. This latest project focused on five distinct waves of data collection up until 2018-2019, encompassing 28,563 participants (average age 89 years-old).

Participants revealed how regularly they engaged in social activities: almost every day, at least once a week, at least once a month, occasionally, or never. The team also examined data pertaining to any potentially influential factors, including sex, education, marital status, household income, fruit and vegetable intake, lifestyle, and poor health. Researchers tracked survival rates for an average of five years or until death.

Over those first five years, 25,406 people didn’t engage in any social activities, while another 1,379 reported doing so sometimes, 693 at least once a month, 553 at least once weekly, and 532 reported socializing almost daily. Over the entire monitoring period, 21,161 (74%) participants passed away, with 15,728 of those individuals dying within the first five years.

All in all, more frequent social activity had an association with significantly longer survival. The more socializing, the greater one’s chances of living longer.

Older adults and seniors out to dinner
(© Monkey Business – stock.adobe.com)

Is there a socializing ‘sweet spot’?

Meanwhile, up to five years from the start of the monitoring period, standardized death rates were 18.4 per 100 people monitored for a year among those who reported never socializing. That rate was 8.8 per 100 people among those who socializing occasionally, 8.3 among those who did so at least monthly, 7.5 among those socializing at least once weekly, and 7.3 among those socializing nearly every day.

There was a delay in the time to death of 42 percent among people socializing occasionally, by 48 percent among those who did at least monthly, by 110 percent in those who did so at least weekly, and by 87 percent in those who socialized close to every day, in comparison to those who never socialized. After five years, survivors included 8,420 participants who reported never socializing, 688 who socialized occasionally, 350 who did so at least monthly, 295 who socialized at least weekly, and 272 who did so nearly every day.

Standardized death rates came in at 6.2 per 100 people monitored for a year among participants who reported never socializing, 4.8 among those socializing occasionally, 5.0 among those socializing at least once per month, 5.4 among those doing so at least once a week, and 3.6 among those who saw others nearly every day.

The team also noted a “threshold effect” during their study. Only socializing on a close-to-daily basis displayed a link to significantly longer survival rates among the group whose time to death was delayed by 204 percent. Factors showing a connection to being more socially active were being a male, younger age, a higher level of education, marriage, living in a town or city and/or with family, and actual or self-rated robust health.

What makes socializing so healthy for older adults?

When researchers further stratified the data according to age, social activity appeared to have an even stronger association with extended survival within the first five years for the oldest adults, suggesting very old people should prioritize social activity.

It’s imperative to note that this research is ultimately observational, and thus cannot establish a definitive cause. Additionally, study authors acknowledge they weren’t able to include possible changes in socializing or health behaviors over periods of time. Researchers also can’t say precisely why socializing helps with survival. Possible explanations include social activity leading to healthier lifestyle habits, like more exercise and a better diet, or staying social may help us de-stress.

“In our study, although the association between social activity frequency and overall survival attenuated after adjusting for sociodemographic factors, socioeconomic status, healthy behaviors and several morbidities, it still remained statistically significant, which indicated that social activity participation per se was an independent predictor for overall survival in older people,” the study authors conclude in a media release.

The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

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