For older adults, having more or closer family members in one’s social network decreases likelihood of death, but having a larger or closer group of friends does not, according to a new study that presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).
“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 and 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.”
The study used nationally representative data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), to investigate which aspects of social networks are most important for postponing mortality.
In the first wave, these older adults were asked to list up to five of their closest confidants, describe in detail the nature of each relationship, and indicate how close they felt to each person. Excluding spouses, the average number of close confidants named was 2.91, and most older adults perceived high levels of support from their social contacts. Additionally, most respondents were married, in good physical health, and reported not being very lonely.
Older adults who reported feeling “extremely close” on average to the non-spousal family members they listed as among their closest confidants had about a six percent risk of mortality within the next five years, compared to approximately a 14 percent risk of mortality among those who reported feeling “not very close” to the family members they listed.
Furthermore, the study found that respondents who listed more non-spousal family members in their network — irrespective of closeness — had lower odds of death compared to those who listed fewer family members.
Iveniuk said he was surprised that feeling closer to one’s family members and having more relatives as confidants decreased the risk of death for older adults, but that the same was not true of relationships with 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.”
Four factors most consistently associated with reduced mortality risk were being married, larger network size, greater participation in social organizations, and feeling closer to one’s confidants, which all mattered to about the same degree.
Interestingly, marriage was found to have positive effects on longevity, regardless of marital quality.
Generally, Iveniuk said his findings underscore the substantial importance of familial relationships for longevity. “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,” Iveniuk said.