Little is understood about why some elderly begin to deteriorate in health more rapidly than others as they enter their final years of life. The key to steady aging, new research suggests, may be maintaining and prioritizing an active social calendar well into one's golden years.
In terms of staying mentally and physically active, socializing may be more beneficial for overall well-being, and promote more self-esteem, happiness, and camaraderie later in life than relationships with spouses, partners, or even children, according to a study published in Psychology and Aging.
The research, published by the American Psychological Association, analyzed data from more than 2,900 now-deceased enrollees in the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, a nationwide survey of residents from former East and West Berlin. The census keeps annual tabs on employment status, occupation, and wages; household size; and ratings on overall health and satisfaction. During the participants' last few years of life—the average age of death in the survey was 74—researchers compared the level of socialization with how fulfilled the subjects felt with their lives, and analyzed how much participants valued their social lives compared to their relationships with family and loved ones.
"Social activities promote feelings of competence, physical health, and cognitive functioning which in turn contribute to high well-being."
Overall life satisfaction was rated on a scale of one to 10. Socializing—frequenting cultural happenings like concerts and lectures, attending sporting events, participating in clubs, and engaging in political activities—was also measured on a scale of one to four, from at least once a week to never at all. Participants were also asked to rate the importance of helping others, being socially and politically involved, and maintaining family relationships. Most participants submitted their final well-being rating roughly two years before their deaths.
Those who placed the highest priority on socializing noted feeling the most satisfied as they neared death, the study found. The most social participants also declined less swiftly in their terminal years as well. Terminal decline intensified, however, if social interactions and goals fell by the wayside.
Surprisingly, favoring strong family relationships over social engagements did little to stall end-of-life declines. The intricacies, dynamics, and ups-and-downs of family life may cause well-being to dwindle, the researchers note, particularly if relationships with adult children feel strained, or due to the stresses of caregiving for ailing partners and spouses.
"Although many people exhibit dramatic declines in well-being in the last years of their lives, some individuals are able to maintain their well-being until (or very close to) the end of life," the authors write. "Social activity may influence well-being directly, for example, through the pursuit of kind acts and engagement in meaningful and joyful activities. The association may also be more indirect, for example, in that social activities promote feelings of competence, physical health, and cognitive functioning which in turn contribute to high well-being."
Social butterflies, it turns out, age quite gracefully.
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