Social support is the perception or experience of being cared for, valued, and respected by others. It can come from various sources, such as family, friends, neighbors, community groups, or health professionals. Social support can provide emotional, instrumental, informational, or appraisal benefits to older adults, such as comfort, assistance, advice, or feedback.
According to Mayo Clinic, social support can enrich your life and improve your health in many ways. It can help you cope with stress, enhance your self-esteem, and reduce your risk of depression and anxiety. It can also motivate you to adopt healthy behaviors, such as physical activity, good nutrition, and adequate sleep. Moreover, social support can protect you from the negative effects of chronic diseases and cognitive decline by boosting your immune system and brain function.
In this article, we will review some of the evidence on how social support is related to various aspects of health and wellbeing among older adults. We will also discuss some of the factors that influence the availability and quality of social support for this population.
Social Support and Physical Health
Social support can have a direct or indirect impact on physical health outcomes among older adults. Directly, social support can provide tangible resources or services that help older adults meet their basic needs, such as food, housing, transportation, or medical care. Indirectly, social support can influence health behaviors and psychological states that affect physical health, such as physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, stress, mood, or self-efficacy.
Several studies have found that older adults who have higher levels of social support tend to have better physical health than those who have lower levels of social support. For example:
– A study by Kelly et al.found that loneliness was strongly associated with depression and self-ratings of health among older adults. In turn, greater social isolation and less social support were associated with greater loneliness. Social isolation was also associated with depression and lower self-ratings of health. The association between social isolation and health was mediated by loneliness.
– A study by Czaja et al. found that having a smaller social network size, more functional limitations, and limitations in engaging meaningful activities were associated with higher levels of loneliness and greater social isolation among older adults. Loneliness and social isolation were also associated with lower levels of cognitive functioning and wellbeing.
– A study by Kelly et al.found that social support was positively associated with physical activity among older adults. Physical activity was in turn associated with better physical functioning and lower risk of chronic diseases. The authors suggested that social support may enhance physical activity by providing encouragement, companionship, feedback, or accountability.
– A study by Ng et al. found that social support was inversely associated with mortality among older adults in Singapore. The authors suggested that social support may reduce mortality by buffering the effects of stressors on health or by facilitating access to health care.
Social Support and Cognitive Health
Social support can also have a direct or indirect impact on cognitive health outcomes among older adults. Directly, social support can provide cognitive stimulation or challenge that enhances brain function and prevents cognitive decline. Indirectly, social support can influence cognitive health through its effects on physical health, mental health, or lifestyle factors.
Several studies have found that older adults who have higher levels of social support tend to have better cognitive health than those who have lower levels of social support. For example:
– A systematic review by Kelly et al. found that social activities, social networks, social support, and composite measures of social relationships were positively associated with various domains of cognitive functioning among healthy older adults. The authors suggested that social relationships may improve cognitive function by providing opportunities for learning new information,
or emotional regulation.
– A study by Czaja et al. found that loneliness and social isolation were negatively associated with cognitive functioning among older adults. The authors suggested that loneliness and social isolation may impair cognitive function by reducing cognitive stimulation,
or mental challenge.
– A study by CDC found that older adults who had high levels of emotional support had better health-related quality of life than those who had low levels of emotional support. The authors suggested that emotional support may improve quality of life by enhancing psychological wellbeing,
or coping skills.
Factors Influencing Social Support Among Older Adults
The availability and quality of social support for older adults may depend on various factors at the individual,
or environmental levels. Some of these factors include:
– Age: Older adults may experience changes in their social networks due to retirement,
or death of friends or relatives. These changes may reduce the size,
or frequency of their social contacts.
– Gender: Older women may have more social support than older men due to their greater involvement in family,
or community networks. However, older women may also face more challenges in maintaining their social support due to their longer life expectancy,
higher rates of chronic diseases,
or lower socioeconomic status.
– Culture: Older adults from different cultural backgrounds may have different expectations,
or norms regarding social support. For example, some cultures may value family ties more than others,
or some cultures may emphasize reciprocity more than others.
– Personality: Older adults with different personality traits may have different levels of social support. For example, some personality traits such as extraversion,
or openness may facilitate social interactions and relationships,
while others such as neuroticism,
or hostility may hinder them.
– Health: Older adults with poor health may have less social support than those with good health due to their reduced mobility,
or participation in social activities. However, older adults with poor health may also need more social support than those with good health due to their increased vulnerability,
In conclusion, social support is an important factor that can influence the health and wellbeing of older adults. Social support can provide various benefits to older adults, such as emotional comfort, instrumental assistance, informational advice, or appraisal feedback. Social support can also improve the physical and cognitive health of older adults by influencing their health behaviors, psychological states, or brain function. However, the availability and quality of social support for older adults may vary depending on their age, gender, culture, personality, or health status. Therefore, it is important to assess the social support needs and preferences of older adults and provide them with appropriate and tailored interventions to enhance their social connectively and wellbeing.