Study finds social interaction beneficial to senior citizens

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Patricia Thomas, postdoctoral fellow at the Population Resource Center, dedicated her dissertation on elderly mental and physical health to her grandmother.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

Senior citizens who increase or maintain social interaction have less cognitive and physical limitations and lower mortality rates, according to research done by Patricia Thomas, postdoctoral fellow for the Population Research Center.

Seniors who started with frequent social interaction and increased it over time were found to have far lower mortality rates than those who started with low levels and decreased social behavior, even after controlling for demographic and health differences, Thomas said in a talk on Friday.

Thomas said social engagement improves health by providing means to cope with stress, increased access to healthcare information, motivation to maintain healthy behaviors through social pressure and a sense of purpose.

“If you have these relationships, if you have a family, you want to not take too risky of behaviors,” Thomas said. “You want to behave in ways that promote your health so you’re around to socialize with them and be in their lives.”

Thomas analyzed data from 1,667 adults over age 60 from the Americans’ Changing Lives survey, which was conducted in four phases from 1986 to 2002. The survey collected information about the frequency of social activities like attending religious services and calling friends and family, along with information about mobility limitations and basic cognitive functioning.

Marci Gleason, human development and family sciences assistant professor, organized the talk as part of 18 seminars the department has planned this year to help educate department members about research at UT and give graduate students an opportunity to practice giving research talks. She said Thomas’ research into the social relationships of older adults is an area the department wants to expand, since it only has one faculty member currently researching that subject.

“We’re interested in the whole life span, and obviously older adults are part of the life span,” Gleason said. “There has to be a particular emphasis in our country and around the world on healthy aging, as the population of the world is getting increasingly older.”

Sue Greninger, human development and family sciences associate professor, said she appreciated that Thomas’ work examined the change in social activities over time, unlike many previous studies.

“We often rely on variables where it’s just one shot in time, and I don’t think that really conveys what life is about,” Greninger said. “Life is a process, and it’s very dynamic.”