People who have more or close family members in their social network are likely to live longer than those who have large groups of friends, a new study has found.
Researchers said that older people (aged 57 to 85 years old) who reported feeling “extremely close” to their family members had a 6% risk of mortality within the next five years. Those who reported feeling “not very close” to family members had a 14% risk of mortality.
“We found that older individuals who had more family in their network, as well as older people who were closer with their family, were less likely to die,” said James Iveniuk, the lead author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
“No such associations were observed for number of or closeness to friends.”
The study used nationally representative data from the 2005/2006 and 2010/2011 surveys of the National Social Life, Health, and Ageing Project (NSHAP) in America to investigate which aspects of social networks are most important for postponing death.
Researchers found that older adults who had more or closer family members in their social network decreased their likelihood of dying.
Interestingly, having a larger or closer group of friends did not.
Older adults who reported feeling “extremely close” on average to the non-spousal family members they listed as among their closest confidants had roughly a 6% risk of mortality over the following five years.
This was compared to a 14% risk of mortality among those who reported feeling “not very close” to the family members they listed.
The study also found that respondents who listed more family members in their network ― irrespective of closeness ― had lower odds of death compared to those who listed fewer family members.
“Regardless of the emotional content of a connection, simply having a social relationship with another person may have benefits for longevity,” Iveniuk said.
He added that he was surprised that having a close circle of friends did nothing to improve longevity.
“Because you can choose your friends, you might, therefore, expect that relationships with friends would be more important for mortality, since you might be better able to customise your friend network to meet your specific needs,” he said.
“But that account isn’t supported by the data ― it is the people who in some sense you cannot choose, and who also have little choice about choosing you, who seem to provide the greatest benefit to longevity.”
In addition to looking at the impact of relationships with family and friendships on longevity, researchers also studied the characteristics of social networks in general and their association with mortality.
The four factors most consistently associated with a reduced risk of dying were: being married, larger network size, greater participation in social organisations, and feeling closer to one’s confidants.
Factors found to be less important included time with confidants, access to social support and feelings of loneliness.
“I expected the association between participation in social organisations and mortality to diminish in size considerably once we controlled for other aspects of peoples’ social worlds, but that didn’t happen,” Iveniuk said.
Marriage was found to have positive effects on longevity, regardless of marital quality.
“We observed no association between measures of support from the spouse and mortality, indicating that the presence of a marital bond may be more important for longevity than certain aspects of the bond itself,” Iveniuk said.
He said the findings place an importance on maintaining family relationships if you want to live a long life.
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