A new study, which was presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of ASA (American Sociological Association), seems to have found a link between close family members and living longer. The results of the study show that older adults who feel closer to their family members have a decreased likelihood of death compared to individuals who are closer to their friends.
The study, titled “Social Relationships and Mortality in Older Adulthood”, used nationally representative date from the survey waves of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP). The surveys covered the years 2005-2006 and 2010-2011. The data was analyzed in order to observe which aspects of social networks play a role in extending life. The mortality of the respondents of wave one (aged 57-85) was assessed at wave two.
“We found that older individuals who had more family in their network, as well as older people who were closer with their family were less likely to die,” said James Iveniuk, the lead author of the study. He is also a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “No such associations were observed for number of or closeness to friends.”
During the first wave the participants were asked to list up to five of their closest confidants. They were also told to describe the nature of each relationship in detail and share how close they felt to each individual they listed. The average number of close confidants was 2.91 (excluding spouses). A majority of older adults shared that their social contacts provided them with high levels of support. Good physical health was seen by a majority of the respondents. They were also married and didn’t report being very lonely.
According to Iveniuk and co-author L. Philip Schumm, a senior biostatician at the University of Chicago, a 6% risk of mortality within in the next five years was seen in older adults who happened to have reported feeling “extremely close” on average to a family member (non-spousal) they had listed as a close confidant. Comparatively, a 14% risk of mortality was observed in individuals who didn’t feel very close to the family members listed by them.
Lower odds of death was also observed in individuals who had listed more family members (non-spousal), irrespective of closeness, compared to participants who listed few family members. “Regardless of the emotional content of a connection, simply having a social relationship with another person may have benefits for longevity,” Iveniuk said.
The results of the study surprised Iveniuk due them showing that the risk of death is decreased in people who feel closer to their family members or have relatives they can confide in compared to those who felt closer to their friends.
“Because you can choose your friends, you might, therefore, expect that relationships with friends would be more important for mortality, since you might be better able to customize your friend network to meet your specific needs,” Iveniuk said. “But that account isn’t supported by the data — it is the people who in some sense you cannot choose, and who also have little choice about choosing you, who seem to provide the greatest benefit to longevity.”
The study also looked at the characteristics of social networks and their link to mortality. The four factors that were commonly linked to a reduced risk of mortality were: larger network sizes, marriage, feeling closer to confidants, and more participation in social organizations. The factors that were observed to not play a major role included: feeling lonely, time spend with confidants, and access to social support.
“I expected the association between participation in social organizations and mortality to diminish in size considerably once we controlled for other aspects of peoples’ social worlds, but that didn’t happen,” Iveniuk said with regards to the results of the study. “We observed no association between measures of support from the spouse and mortality, indicating that the presence of a marital bond may be more important for longevity than certain aspects of the bond itself,” he added.
He further went on to say that, “Going back to the very first sociological theorists, many different thinkers have noted that there is some kind of special significance that people attribute to family ties, leading people to stay close to and support people who wouldn’t necessarily be individuals that they would associate with if they had the choice.”
The results indicate and even if some family bonds are considered burdensome individuals can still rely on them for support while close friendships seem to diminish in people who lose contact over time with their friends.
Both Iveniuk and Schumm noted that the current study may only apply to a cross-section of modern-day America as the definition of ‘family’ and ‘relationship’ differ with regards to society and culture.