seniors playing cardsAs we age, staying socially active can become more challenging. We may lose touch with friends and family as our interests and activities change, or we become separated from them by distance, medical conditions that restrict our ability to travel, death, or social factors.

We all know maintaining a social life is important for good mental health, but a new study suggests that it’s also important for physical health.

The new study suggests that being socially isolated may increase the risk of early death, especially among the older adults. The study, which was published last week by the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted at the University College London.

The researchers had 6,500 men and women over the age of 50 fill out questionnaires assessing their levels of social isolation and loneliness, then tracked the participants’ health over the next seven years.

The researchers found that social isolation was strongly linked to higher mortality. The most socially isolated participants had a 26 percent greater chance of dying than participants who were socially active.

The researchers don’t yet know why social isolation was shown to be so strongly linked to mortality, but they have a few theories. For one thing, if a person is isolated, that means that no one is around to notice the first signs of illness, meaning that treatment can be delayed. Also, social contact has been shown to have physiological effects: studies have shown that social contact can reduce blood pressure, pain, and stress, which can help lower the risk of disease.

So what are some ways to stay socially active?

  • Volunteer at a hospital, community center or animal shelter
  • Organize a weekly game or movie night with your friends or family
  • Visit a senior center and participate in activities with other seniors (a great way to make new friends)
  • Take a class–you’ll learn a new activity like photography or cooking while getting some social interaction
  • Join a fitness center at your local YMCA where they also have other activities to perk your interest
  • Visit the local bookstore and join a reading group
  • Find a local diner or eating establishment and frequent it once or twice a week for breakfast or lunch. Sit at the counter if they have one and strike up conversations with other locals who may have interests in common with you
  • Schedule regular outings with your grandchildren if they live close by. If they don’t, use snail mail, email, or videochatting to stay connected. They can show you how to do it!

If you are feeling lonely and isolated, it may not feel natural to get out and be with people, but if you do, you’ll find that you’ll feel happier and more fulfilled–and of course, you’re helping lower your risk of mortality at the same time! If you are shy like I am, invite a friend to meet you where you are going so you feel more comfortable and help get you started.  

Do you have any tips about things to do to keep socially active? Share them with others in the comments!