It is well established that being involved in more social roles, such as being married, having close friends, close family members, and belonging to social and religious groups, leads to better mental and physical health. However, why social integration – the total number of social roles a person participates in – influences health and longevity is unclear.
New research from Carnegie Mellon University shows for the first time that social integration has an impact on lung function in older people. Lung function, which declines with age, is an important physiological quality that affects cardiovascular disease, asthma, and other lung disorders. Published in the American Psychological Association’s Health psychology journal, this study also refutes the popular notion that marriage is the only social role required for health benefits. In fact, different social relationships can substitute for each other and each added social role improves health.
“We knew that when older people have friends and family and belong to groups, they have lower death rates and less disease and disease risk, but now we can begin to understand why this happens. “said Sheldon Cohen of Robert E. Doherty University. Professor of psychology at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at CMU. âWe are also answering crucial questions about the importance of marriage for health. It has been suggested that marriage – and the things that usually come with it like children and family – is the only social role that matters. The bottom line is that marriage is not necessary for better health – it is the total number of social roles that predicts improved health. “
For the study, the research team analyzed data collected from 1,147 healthy adults aged 70 to 79 who participated in the MacArthur Study on Successful Aging. The data included a measure of participants’ social roles and assessed their lung function based on peak expiratory flow (PEFR).
They found that the more people engaged in social roles, the better their lung function. While analysis of specific social roles indicated that marriage was the strongest positive link with lung function, more roles were also associated with better lung function, even among those who weren’t married. Being a relative or friend was also individually linked with improved lung function, but more social roles were also associated with better lung function regardless of being a relative or friend.
âSeniors need to get out because any sort of social interaction will improve their health,â said Crista Crittenden, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon in Qatar and lead author of the study. “I’m really interested in how social and psychological factors influence lung health, and not only have we shown that more social roles, like being married or having friends, improve lung function, we’ve found a connection between more social roles and increased happiness and physical activity which could also help with lung function and overall health. â