By Lisa Rapaport
(Reuters Health) – Older adults with bigger social networks of family members and close friends may be better at staying on top of recommended preventive health screenings and checkups than their more isolated peers, a UK study suggests.
Researchers surveyed 5,362 adults born in 1946 in England, Scotland and Wales about their social relationships 24 times over several decades, until they were aged 68 to 69 years. Participants also reported how often they engaged in recommended preventive health activities like routine checkups, immunizations, vision and dental exams, blood pressure and cholesterol assessments and cancer screenings.
By the time they were 68 to 69 years old, 2,132 people were still alive and participating in the study, and 44 percent were up to date on all recommended preventive health services and screenings.
At this point in life, people who weren’t married or living with a romantic partner were 33 percent more likely to be behind on at least some preventive services and screenings than people who were married or cohabiting, the study found.
Participants who had few close friends were 51 percent more likely than those with larger social networks to be behind on preventive health services and screenings.
“It suggests that if we can intervene to get people more socially connected, then there may be benefits for their preventive health care use,” said lead study author Mai Stafford of the Health Foundation in London.
“This is important for patients because taking up opportunities for checkups like bowel and breast cancer screening, flu jabs and blood pressure monitoring can help prevent serious illness and may ultimately prolong life,” Stafford, who did the research while at University College London, said by email.
Social isolation has long been linked to poorer physical and mental health as people age. The current study offers fresh evidence that the quality and quantity of close social relationships, and shifts in these relationships over time, may influence how much people focus on preventive health, the authors write in The Lancet Public Health.
In the study, people who experienced increasing quality in their social connectedness from ages 53 to 69 were 7 percent less likely to fall behind on preventive services and screenings than those who had consistently limited social networks.
Over this same span of time, people who had consistently high levels of social connectedness were 9 percent less likely to fall behind on preventive services and screenings than those with limited social networks, the researchers also found.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how social relationships directly impact use of preventive health services. It’s also possible that these participants in a long-term research cohort were more actively engaged in their healthcare than the overall population in the UK, the study authors note.
Even so, there are many reasons why people may have diminished social connectivity later in life – including widowhood, loss of work and social roles, and illness and disability – that might contribute to people falling behind on recommended preventive health services and screenings, said Gail Mountain, a researcher at the University of Sheffield and author of an accompanying editorial.
“The ramifications of any one of these factors is evident,” Mountain said by email.
For example, “a woman whose husband has always driven the family car can find herself challenged by having to use public transport when widowed; poor mobility in later life can cause significant problems when trying to get out and about and there can be increased cost if taxis are required; and loss of lifelong roles can leave an individual feeling devalued,” Mountain said.
“It is clear to me that those who have diminished social connections for whatever reason are less likely to leave their homes, use public transport and indeed respond to unexpected requests to attend hospital appointments,” Mountain said.
(This story has been refilled to correct attribution of quotes in paragraphs 13 and 15 to Mountain)