For seniors, having closer relationships with relatives and family members may be more important than friendships, particularly when it comes to extending life expectancy.

In a new report, scientists from the University of Toronto discovered that older adults who were extremely close with their family and had more relatives in their social network had lesser mortality rates. On the other hand, no association was found among older adults and their relationships with friends.

Closest Confidantes

Led by postdoc researcher James Iveniuk, the new study used nationally represented data from surveys of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NLHAP) from 2005 to 2006 and 2010 to 2011. The survey waves sought to determine which aspects of social networks are most crucial for delaying mortality.

During the first wave, participants who were aged 57 to 85 years old were asked to list up to five of their closest confidantes, describe the nature of their relationships and indicate how close they are to the person.

Most of the participants were in good physical health, were married and reported not being lonely. Excluding wives and husbands, the average number of confidantes was 2.91. Most seniors perceived high levels of support from social contacts.

In the end, researchers found that participants who reported being very close to the non-spousal relatives they mentioned as a confidante had a 6 percent chance of mortality over the next five years, compared to a 14 percent mortality risk among participants who said they were not very close to the family members they listed.

Furthermore, the report discovered that those who mentioned more family members in their social network regardless of bond had lower chances of death when compared with those who mentioned fewer relatives.

"Simply having a social relationship with another person may have benefits for longevity," says Iveniuk.

Iveniuk says he was surprised to see that feeling closer to relatives and having more family members as confidantes lowered the risk of death for seniors but it was not true for friendships.

He says one explanation may be that anyone can choose their friends. A person might expect friendships would be more important for mortality, particularly since the friend network may be adjusted to suit certain needs, says Iveniuk.

That notion, however, was not supported by the findings of the study. In some sense, it is the people you cannot choose to be with and who have little options about choosing you that may provide the greatest benefit to a longer lifespan, says Iveniuk.

"Social relationships really do matter," he added.

The findings of the new study will be presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. The report does not provide a cause-and-effect relationship, but highlights an association.

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