The key to staying young

Maintaining social ties is important for seniors’ health

We are sociable beings. As we age, our need for interaction only increases. When a spouse dies, or siblings and friends die, we need support more than ever. Keeping active socially is important to keep an individual healthy. “It almost works like a group therapy,” says Dr. Vidyasagar Vangala, a pyschiatrist specializing in geriatrics at Davenport’s Mid-Florida Psychiatric Center. “You learn from people.”

It’s common for older people to think they are the only ones with cognitive or memory problems. They may become anxious, but when they are connected to others, they realize “a lot of people go through the same thing,” he explains.

Even more importantly, being healthy and socially active can delay dementia. “In general, the onset of dementia will be a little later if a person is more active physically and mentally,” Dr. Vangala says.

A study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found evidence last year that elderly people in the United States who have an active social life may have a slower rate of memory decline. And according to the National Institute on Aging’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, older adults who participated in social activities (i.e., played games, belonged to social groups, attended local events, traveled) or productive activities (i.e., had paid or unpaid jobs, cooked, gardened) lived longer than people who did not report taking part in these types of activities.

Physical activity keeps the heart muscle healthy and improves circulation, Dr. Vangala says. Word puzzles and games keep their minds active and attentive.

When there is social interaction, there also is likely to be humor, a protection against depression. “Even if you are feeling down a little bit for a day or two,” Dr. Vangala continues, “you may get help earlier than if you are alone and nobody knows how you are doing.”

Isolation can be brought on by many things, Dr. Vangala points out, and a primary care physician should be contacted if this problem arises. “If it is part of the depression it needs to be addressed and cared for properly,” he says.

While the Internet can keep the elderly connected to family members across the country, there are challenges. “It’s a new technology and some individuals will not learn a new technology,”explains Dr. Gordon Rafool, a board-certified geriatrician at Gessler Clinic in Winter Haven and a Polk County Medical Association member.

In addition, online interaction is not the same as personal contact. “It (the Internet) creates or fosters isolation. That’s what we don’t want,” Dr. Rafool observes. He suggests a daily chat with someone is helpful to avoid depression.

Although not having many close friends can contribute to poorer health for many older adults, those who also feel lonely face even greater health risks, new research at the University of Chicago suggests. Older people who are able to adjust to being alone don’t have the same health problems.

According to the study, which included about 3,000 people aged 57 to 85 between 2005 and 2006 and was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the most socially connected older adults are three times as likely to report very good or excellent health compared to those who are least connected, regardless of whether they feel isolated. Consequently, older adults who feel least isolated are five times as likely to report very good or excellent health as those who feel most isolated, regardless of their actual level of social connectedness.

“Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health, regardless of whether it prompts feelings of loneliness or a perceived lack of social support,” says study co-author Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on aging. However, the researchers found a different relationship between social isolation and mental health. “The relationship between social disconnectedness and mental health appears to operate through feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support.”

Older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. Deteriorating mental health also reduces people’s willingness to exercise and may increase health-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol use.

As we age, experts say there are many reasons for social isolation – loss of family and friends as they move away or die, leaving jobs and coworkers, getting ill and lack of transportation. But there are solutions to keep them active.

“One of their best sources is their church groups,” Dr. Rafool suggests. “Many do have senior centers.” These centers, along with others like the Winter Haven Senior Adult Center, are a good place for seniors to interact with each other, he continues. “The more active they are, the less likely they are going to have a problem,” Dr. Rafool explains. “The interaction between others allows them certain emotional releases.”

One of the best things for seniors is a daily walk in a safe, well-lit neighborhood area, at the mall, or even at the grocery store, where the feeble can use a shopping cart for support, Dr. Rafool says.

“Physical activity should be dictated by their physicians,” he says, adding it also is important to keep weight within reasonable bounds.

One way to keep active is through volunteering. Those around 65 are more receptive to helping the older ones, driving them to appointments and doing their shopping. “They kind of adopt them,” Dr. Rafool says. “You see that more when some of the old olds have no family to help with things.” Those who have held a variety of volunteer jobs are more likely to remain interested in social activity as they age, adds Dr. Anne Katz, an associate professor of clinical gerontology at the University of Southern California.

Consider The Experience Corps, a community-based program that places older adult volunteers living in an urban setting in public elementary schools for approximately 15 hours a week. According to the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the first group of Experience Corps volunteers in Baltimore, Md. had an increase in physical, social, and cognitive activity levels, which might decrease their risk for disability, dependency, and dementia in later life. In addition to physical health benefits, volunteers reported feeling personal satisfaction from their experience.

More importantly, experts say volunteering and other forms of social interaction can bring seniors into contact with others whom they have more things in common with. “I talked to some ladies who said they don’t want to be moved into a retirement home because they really don’t have a lot in common with some people their own age,” says Dr. Donna Benton, assistant professor of gerontology at the USC and director of the Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center.

As they age, however, it is preferable to secure home health aid rather than place them in an institution, Dr. Rafool advises. “They do much better in their own environment,” he explains. “We talk about home health for the elderly that can’t get out.” Help is available for bathing, meals, even physical or occupational therapy.

Dr. Rafool also suggests Meals on Wheels, a food delivery service “that puts a driver at their house every day.”



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