SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS: Fulfilled, they reduce the risk of diseases

These data in line with the adverse health effects of loneliness and isolation in old age are only partially explained by certain confounding factors, including level of income, education or background. health. Until then, we did not know if these links can erase part of the risk of chronic diseases later in life. This new study concludes that cultivating satisfying relationships in midlife with one’s partner, family, friends or co-workers reduces the risk of accumulating multiple comorbidities in later life.

The less satisfactory social relationships are, the higher the risk of comorbidities

The study thus assessed to what extent the level of satisfaction, here of 13,714 female participants at l’Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH), with regard to their social relationships, could influence this risk. All participants included in the current analysis were between the ages of 45 and 50 in 1996. Their health and well-being were followed approximately every 3 years and until 2016 by questionnaire. Participants rated their levels of satisfaction with each of the 5 relationship categories on a 4-point scale, with each response scored with a maximum of 3 points. Participants also reported any chronic illnesses (diabetes; high blood pressure; heart disease; stroke; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); asthma; osteoporosis; arthritis; cancer; depression; anxiety). Having 2 or more diseases has been termed “multimorbidity”. The final analysis, which involved 7,694 women, reveals that:

  • 58% of the participants (i.e. n=4,484) had accumulated several long-term conditions over 20 years of follow-up;
  • these participants with multimorbidity were more likely to have low education, low income, be overweight or obese, be physically inactive, smoke, and have had a menopause induced by surgery .
  • satisfaction with social relationships is inversely associated with the accumulation of long-term comorbidities: the higher the levels of satisfaction, the lower the risks;
  • vs participants with the highest level of satisfaction, those reporting the lowest level of satisfaction are more than 2 times more likely to accumulate multiple long-term comorbidities after adjusting for possible confounders;
  • the strength of the association is comparable to that of more established risk factors, such as overweight/obesity, physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol consumption; thus, well-established risk factors, such as socio-economic level, health history and menopausal status, only explain less than one-fifth of the observed association;
  • when all types of relationships are included in the analysis, the association remains significant.

Although the observational study does not establish a causal relationship and only involved a sample of women, its conclusions are in line with the poorer health results observed in the elderly alone or isolated.

Thus, these data should encourage the implementation of community interventions promoting the maintenance of social relationships in old age.

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