Social Connections Keep Us Physically and Mentally Healthy As We Age
As people age, health often becomes a larger focus in their lives—their joints become a little more achy, or their vision less sharp. Some might even be dealing with a new diagnosis.
To handle these ailments, doctors might prescribe medications, or diet and lifestyle changes. But there’s often one big factor missing from these conversations: a patient’s social well-being.
Sociology researcher Dr. Linda Waite has been tracking the social health of thousands of research participants ranging in age from 50 to over 100, for 15 years. The study is ongoing, and so far she’s found that the social aspects of our lives play a big role in our long-term physical and mental health and well-being as we age.
Ira talks with Dr. Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and head of the National Social Life, Health & Aging Project in front of a live audience at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, Illinois, presented with WBEZ and Mindworks.
Dr. Linda Waite is a professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and lead researcher of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project in Chicago, Illinois.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
Our next conversation was recorded in front of a live audience just a few weeks ago at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, in collaboration with WBEZ and Mindworks. The theme of the evening was Social Connection. Connect with it and enjoy.
For many of us, as we age, our health becomes a larger focus in our lives. Joints are a bit more achy, vision a bit less sharp. Maybe you’re dealing with a new diagnosis, which requires treatment, and perhaps for the rest of your life. Doctors might prescribe new medications, scans, diets, lifestyle changes. But there’s often one big factor missing from these conversations– our social well-being.
Do you see friends and family often enough? Do you have close bonds with those people? Can you open up to them when you need to? Is your marriage or your romantic partnership satisfying?
My next guest has asked thousands of participants between the ages of 50 to 100 those kinds of questions and more over the course of– what– 15 years. And she’s found that these social aspects of our lives play a very big role in our long-term health and well-being as we age.
Let me introduce her to you. Dr. Linda Waite is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and head of the National Social Life Health and Aging Project. She’s based here in Chicago.
Welcome to Science Friday.
LINDA WAITE: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Let me begin by asking you about what you do. Give us a short overview of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. What kinds of topics are you asking folks to participate in in this study?
LINDA WAITE: Well, as you just said, the social world is really fundamental to our health as humans. We’re designed– have evolved– to be social creatures. So being well embedded in a social world is the best possible environment for us.
The National Social Life, Health and Aging study– NSHAP, as we call it– started about 20 years ago. We were interested in the links between the social world, your intimate partnerships, your social networks, your social participation, and what I’m calling other domains of health.
And we designed a survey that was based on the World Health Organization definition of health. Which is not just the absence of illness or disease, but positives in mental, psychological, physical, social well-being. And we tried to measure all of those in a sample of older adults. It’s a nationally representative sample, which means it was selected to include all the kinds of people there are in the United States.
When we first spoke to them, they were 57 to 85 years old– and asking them questions about their health– very detailed. Sexuality was a big part of it– it remains a big part of it– and how they’re doing on all these different dimensions.
IRA FLATOW: So you actually go into their homes and you measure what– their blood pressure or–
LINDA WAITE: Yes. So we have a one-hour interview done by a field interviewer– a highly trained professional, nice– usually a woman. So it’s an enjoyable experience. She asks all these invasive questions.
And then we do a mini-mental exam. We measure height, weight, and waist circumference, blood pressure, heart rate, vision, taste, touch, and smell. And then we look at the relationships between these.
IRA FLATOW: And how important do you find that social bonds are to our health, as well as all these other kinds of things like exercise and stuff like that? How important are those social bonds?
LINDA WAITE: Well, you should exercise with a friend.
IRA FLATOW: Oh.
LINDA WAITE: And then you get them both. So we’ve known for a while that, just as a predictor of mortality, the quality of your social relationships is more important than whether you smoke.
IRA FLATOW: Really? Really.
LINDA WAITE: Years off your life.
IRA FLATOW: How many years? Could you give us an idea? Is it many years? A few years?
LINDA WAITE: Well, I’d say it’s five to– depending on what you’re talking about– if you’re talking about an intimate partnership like a marriage or a partnership, it could be definitely 10 years.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Is it because it’s stress? I mean, is it related to stress?
LINDA WAITE: Well, it’s one of the things it’s related to. But if you think about what you get from your friends and family, the people you can talk to– say you have a health problem that just came up and you’re worried about what you should do– and you have friends, a social network you can call and say, what should I do here, or, I feel terrible, can I come over for a cup of coffee, and that reduces your stress, one. But, two, it might actually give you practical information– oh, I know somebody who had this, and call her and she’ll help you.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because we’ve heard recently how important loneliness– do you study that also? Does that figure into the kind of research that you do?
LINDA WAITE: Yeah, absolutely. There’s been a lot, especially since the COVID pandemic, about loneliness. And loneliness, from those who research it, is the feeling that your social relationships don’t measure up; that they’re not enough.
So loneliness is a feeling that can be very painful. And the people who really worked on this initially said loneliness is evolutionarily designed to give us a painful feeling when we’re separated from the group because we do best with the group so that we will try and reintegrate. Its aversive to try and get us to do the good thing for us as humans.
Social isolation is actually who’s around– how many friends do you have? Do you have a strong social network? Do you live alone? Do you participate socially? One is the feeling. And people can be lonely even if they’re very connected. And they can be not lonely and have nobody around. It’s fine.
So the one other point is that the people you’re actually connected to are the ones who are going to bring you chicken soup if you have a cold or pick up a prescription for you or come over. So it’s the reality that’s important in different ways than the feelings.
IRA FLATOW: It seems to me this is sort of a new idea. Why have we neglected this part of our lives for so long in terms of understanding the connection between sociability and social connections and health?
LINDA WAITE: I think that health became very medicalized. And the medical community really started focusing on the cell, the body systems, pills, surgery. But I have to say, in the last 10 years, I think that medicine– clinical medicine– has really discovered the social.
IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s go into some of these a bit in detail because some of the statistics are interesting– the results of your work. For example, how does the quality of marriage affect things like cardiovascular disease? Is there really a connection?
LINDA WAITE: Yes. Yes, there really is. It makes sense that if marriage or an intimate partnership is a safe haven, it reduces stress. It makes you feel supported. And cardiovascular disease is in part– the cascade is from upset, stress, high blood pressure, inflammation, to cardiovascular disease. So if you reduce stress, reduce exposure to stress, help recover from stress, then that improves your circulatory system, which ultimately improves cardiovascular health.
IRA FLATOW: Now, I know your work focuses mostly on heterosexual couples, right? Are there different trends among the LGBTQ+ couples?
LINDA WAITE: Well, we have a relatively small number of people who identify as LGBTQ. And their social networks are somewhat different. Because it’s really an important population that the National Institutes of Health recognize as having health disparities, we’re in the midst of trying to figure out a way to get a nationally representative sample of LGBTQ older adults to do this study on. It’s coming. Stay tuned.
IRA FLATOW: You asked the participants about their sexual lives.
LINDA WAITE: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: Which sounds like taboo to a lot of people who might have second thoughts about answering. But why did you feel It’s important to ask that question?
LINDA WAITE: Well, if you think about it, partnered sex is the most social thing you can do, really.
IRA FLATOW: People think it’s common knowledge that sex stops after an early age, right? You found that senior citizens–
LINDA WAITE: Yes, it’s not true. For people with partners at older ages, sexual activity is very common. And it’s a big source of all sorts of good things. It is a stress reducer. It is exercise. It’s also a bonding, which is very important.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And something that also happens to all of us as we get older is we lose our hearing. Does that loss contribute to feeling lonely or isolation?
LINDA WAITE: Yes. So I sort of proselytize on this–
IRA FLATOW: What did you say? I’m sorry.
LINDA WAITE: Yeah. So unremediated poor hearing causes cognitive decline now because your brain is thinking about, was that “car” or “cart”? Was that “fan” or “fun”– if you’re struggling to understand speech.
Unremediated poor hearing predicts incident Alzheimer’s disease. Unremediated poor hearing increases risk of falls. Unremediated poor hearing increases risk of loneliness. On that one, it’s really easy. If it’s more costly for you to go out and do something because you can’t hear, especially in restaurants or crowded rooms, then you don’t do it as much or you don’t get as much out of it because you missed a lot of the conversation.
So we see that people with poor hearing– older adults with poor hearing– are more likely to be lonely.
IRA FLATOW: So people should get their hearing checked and not be fearful of getting help– like maybe a hearing aid or something like that?
LINDA WAITE: Right.
IRA FLATOW: I found, interestingly enough, in studying your research that another sense that was incredibly important that you found was smell.
LINDA WAITE: Yes, olfaction. A member of our team is the woman who discovered pheromones and discovered the social meaning of pheromones, and insisted that in this study that we measure sense of smell. Which I thought was probably a waste of time, but– so we did measure sense of smell. We measured ability to identify four common household odors.
What the team found– this is not my work; this is the rest of the team– is that people who could not identify any of the odors faced a 35% higher chance of dying in the next five years than people exactly like them who had normal sense of smell.
IRA FLATOW: Let me just get you to repeat that again because everybody’s going to start thinking they’re dying soon because we all–
How much loss of smell are you talking about?
LINDA WAITE: So you can’t smell–
IRA FLATOW: Anything?
LINDA WAITE: You can’t recognize any of four household odors here. And the thinking is is the olfactory bulb is– olfaction is the most primitive sense single-celled organisms have signaling with the environment– and the olfactory bulb sits right here. Anything that comes into your nose goes right into the brain, including pollution. You ever took a big bite of horseradish and all of a sudden your brain explodes. It really sort of did.
So olfaction may be an early signal that other organ systems, including the brain, are having trouble.
IRA FLATOW: So that if you have the problem with smell, it could indicate your other– what you’re saying– your other senses?
LINDA WAITE: But I asked the researcher who does this, who’s an otolaryngologist at the University of Chicago, so what do we do? And he said smell exercises.
IRA FLATOW: Wait a minute. There are smell–
LINDA WAITE: There are smell exercises. Partly it’s mindfulness. But if you grate some nutmeg, just smell it. Or the soap in the bath, just consciously smell and register those smells.
IRA FLATOW: You’re retraining your brain. I knew there was a good use for my old socks– for my dirty socks.
I didn’t know you could do that. And then there’s a real good correlation, is what you’re saying, between the sense of smell and how we’re aging?
LINDA WAITE: And your chances you’re going to die soon.
IRA FLATOW: Well, when you put it that way.
This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios. If you’re just joining us, I’m talking with sociology researcher Linda Waite about the importance of social connections as we age, recorded in front of a live audience in Chicago.
You also found– and this was really interesting– that folks who volunteer more or attend religious services typically have better health outcomes. Why is that?
LINDA WAITE: Well, what we think is that the things you do socially reduce stress, get you out and moving– which is good, especially at older ages. And if you think about it, the newest part of our brain is the prefrontal cortex. And that was evolved to, we think, map social relations in the groups of about 120 people that we lived in for years. So it’s mapping social relationships.
When you go out and do things– social things– then you’re exercising that part of your brain. So it makes sense that if physical exercise is good for you, that social exercise is also good for you. And there’s even a little hint in the literature that it doesn’t always have to be fun. Sometimes it can be challenging and it could still be good exercise– you know, that difficult relative who always makes you miserable at Thanksgiving.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think that the age we are now, with people sitting in front of their laptops or their phones, is that more isolation? Does that lead to a little bit more of isolation and worry about that?
LINDA WAITE: So here’s the evidence for that. When the COVID pandemic started– we have this big data collection effort; we go to people’s homes– we couldn’t go to anybody’s homes. But our funders, the National Institutes of Health, offered everybody who ran a big study the opportunity to apply for COVID funds. So we did. And we asked people about, because of the stay-at-home orders, how often they saw other people in person? Which we had never done before. All of this other is just, how do you get together with family and friends?
What we found was that there was a really big difference between in-person social contact and depressive symptoms– loneliness, happiness– that a video call didn’t do it, FaceTime didn’t do it, the Zooms certainly don’t do it. But in-person contact with people you don’t live with improved mental health for our respondents.
IRA FLATOW: That was terrific. Thank you. Thank you for taking time to be with us today because I certainly learned a lot. I hope you all learned a lot. And we’ll take Professor Waite’s advice.
Dr. Linda Waite, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and at the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project.