Social Factors that Can Influence Longevity
When it comes to longevity, most studies revolve around medical factors and physical health. But a new study has shown that social factors may also play a role when it comes to life expectancy.
Scientists from Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of California San Francisco used data from past studies to come up with a series of 10 questions to predict mortality risk over 4 years. They named the survey the “Social Frailty Index.”
In this study, 8250 adults over age 65 were surveyed. The short quiz asked about age, gender, children, and isolation. After 4 years the team followed up and found that 22% had died. Using machine learning, they found that the people who died shared some common social traits.
These 8 factors are:
A dirty neighborhood
How often they their children
Not active with children
Not working for pay
Things that May Influence Mortality
It’s been known for a while that loneliness and feelings of isolation can affect people and potentially trigger health problems. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, even if someone has plenty of social contact. People can feel lonely due to living by themselves, losing family and friends, chronic illness, or hearing loss.
The scientists say that loneliness can reduce lifespan because it is linked to stress, which raises the risk of age related disease. Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia. Poor social relationships was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
An Unclean Neighborhood
Unclean or dirty neighborhoods are usually a sign of poverty, another issue that can cause stress. Poverty can also mean that someone has a lack of access to good nutrition, a factor that can affect one’s health. The best-performing and richest counties in the United States have average life expectancies that are now 20 years greater than the lowest-performing poorest counties.
Little Control Over Finances
A lack of control over finances is also tied to poverty. The index specifically mentions control over finances, which means that the people in the survey felt like they were constantly worried about having enough for basic necessities. This can contribute to stress which can shorten life expectancy.
Not Working for Pay
The machine model worded this factor “not working for pay” which has been interpreted as unemployment. Again, this can be tied to poverty, higher stress levels, being able to afford healthcare, and a lack of good nutrition.
Although volunteering is unpaid work, it is not considering unemployment because people do it for the intrinsic rewards they receive. Volunteering builds a sense of community and allows for social interaction. This ties back into the loneliness aspect.
Not Active with Children
The Social Frailty Index asked participants how often they are active with grandkids or even kids in general, something that has benefits for the elderly. One study showed that it’s mutually beneficial for both the children and the adults. The elderly have improved mental and physical health, less loneliness, and a feeling of purpose.
Meeting Children Less Than Once a Year
We do know that people who have children do have a slightly longer life expectancy (2 years for men, 1.5 years for women). There is speculation that people with children have more social interactions, get support from children as the parents grow older, and parents have healthier habits like not smoking and exercising more.
Even though people who become parents tend to live longer, when they see their children less than once per year, it can affect their physical and mental health. Reasons for not seeing children often include distance, but also could indicate a strained relationship. Both are a source of stress and loneliness which could lead to other health problems. Children also tend to be attentive to issues with elderly parents. If they aren’t around, they may not know of any health problems or habits that could lead to issues.
The machine model cites feeling disrespected or being treated with less courtesy as a social factor that can affect longevity. Although there is no explanation as to why, there are indications that show how older people, like the ones surveyed in this study, deal with ageism and discrimination which can be linked with feelings of being disrespected. They may feel this from their own children or possibly society.
Take the Quiz Yourself
The Social Frailty Index is available online if you want to get a prediction of your 4 year mortality based on the social factors discussed in this article.
One application for people who work with the elderly is that it can be used to help them engage in planning and interventions. The tool can identify at-risk individuals who could benefit from measures that address the social issues affecting their health. Click here for more information.