Although this may sound biased, I think of my 86-year-old mother as a poster child for healthy aging. She exercises everyday for 30-45 minutes, drives freely around town, and cooks elaborate meals and sweets for friends and family. People who meet her often assume she is around 70-75 years of age, and despite managing chronic conditions such as hypertension and GERD, my mother continues to lead an active, engaged life. Recently, her primary physician marveled at how healthy and spry she seems to be.
What is Healthy Aging?
The topic of healthy aging conjures up images of physically active older adults, as exercise is credited with greatly improving overall health and wellbeing. Other health promoting factors important to wellness include balanced nutrition, quality sleep, routine medical check-ups, and home safety. Without a doubt, these areas are important to overall health and wellbeing for people of all ages. Though equally important, one component that receives less recognition is the value of social relationships. In her article, What Social Relationships Can Do for Health, Sara Honn Qualls, a psychology professor and Director of the Gerontology Center at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), states that health and social relationships are interconnected. For older adults, healthy behaviors are easier to maintain within the social network of friends, family members, and caregivers who can provide interactive support and companionship. Honn Qualls proposes that the power of social relationships on healthy aging is a topic that needs further research.
The Blue Zones and Healthy Aging
Dan Buettner, healthy aging expert and best-selling author of The Blue Zones, studied five cultures throughout the world known for large populations of elders enjoying long, healthy lives, many into their 90s and beyond: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, CA; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece.
The Blue Zones Project identifies nine main areas associated with healthy aging, including regular physical activity, eating mostly plant-based diets, and spending time with family. While the project highlights various factors contributing to positive health outcomes, one key element shared across these cultures is the emphasis on social relationships. Older adults in these five cultures are actively engaged within their social networks comprised of families, friends, and communities. What’s more, healthy activities often take place within social environments. For example, exercise may include walking 10-15 minutes to visit a friend, or mealtimes may be enjoyed together with children, grandchildren, and good friends. Social connections encourage healthy behaviors in natural ways, thereby contributing to healthy aging.
In past and current experiences, the healthiest older persons I’ve met seem to possess solid social networks. For such individuals, social connections extend beyond family and close friends, and include relationships forged through volunteering and community engagement. Many older volunteers provide assistance in local hospitals, libraries, and senior centers. Communities benefit from the work of older volunteers, and the volunteers, in turn, benefit through increased feelings of wellbeing. On a personal note, when I returned to school in mid-life, my tutors at the community college math lab were older, retired volunteers who patiently helped me through my algebra homework. I am grateful to the many hours they’ve devoted to helping me and countless others improve our knowledge and skills!
Social relationships are vital to healthy aging. However, one detail that must not be overlooked is that with aging, networks may shrink due to loss of spouses and friends. Additionally, illness or injuries may decrease abilities and opportunities for active community engagement. Some changes may be unavoidable. Still, changes don’t have to cause prolonged stress when we pay attention to the needs of older adults. As family and friends, we can help strengthen their support systems by looking beyond immediate circles. Accordingly, neighbors, as well as home health care professionals, can provide practical assistance as well as companionship as part of the social network for older adults.