If laughter is the best medicine, then talking is the second best. Research continually shows that engaging in daily conversation—whether it’s a simple chat about the weather or a deep and meaningful conversation, can help improve senior’s mental and physical health. Some of the benefits of social connection include the following:
Social Connection Helps Improve Cognitive Abilities
Staying socially connected reduces the effects of ageing on our cognitive abilities. Just like doing crossword puzzles, talking to friends is like exercise for your brain. Over a 12-year period, researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre in Chicago followed 1,100 seniors without dementia. They found that those with higher or frequent social activity levels had a rate of cognitive decline that was 70% less than people who had low social activity.
Giving older adults the opportunity to share their past stories can also be beneficial. Through storytelling, seniors are able to identify and understand the themes and goals that have driven their lives. This can often improve their overall self-esteem by granting them the choice and control they had in their youth. Research has also shown that in addition to helping people deal with negative feelings, reminiscing may also ignite parts of the brain that would otherwise remain dormant, ultimately boosting overall recall and memory.
Social Connection Improves Physical Health
There’s no doubt about it—staying connected socially improves your overall physical health. Regardless of your age, there is a relationship between social isolation and physical health. A meta-analytic review of 148 studies investigated the connection between social relationships and mortality and found that those with good relationships had a 50 per cent increased likelihood of survival.
Having daily conversations is particularly important as you age. One study of seniors found that social interactions reduced the likelihood of another kind of interaction, such as with their family doctor or nurse. This may be because staying social can reduce the risk of obesity and heart attacks, as well as lowering one’s blood pressure. It doesn’t hurt that taking the time to speak with someone may be the easiest prescription to fill—and in the case of Keeping Connected, we’re just a phone call away.
Social seniors have lower levels of physical disability (up to 43 per cent less), which suggests they may be able to care for themselves longer. In another study of individuals aged 65+ across three European countries, those with social ties were able to more readily undertake normal daily living activities—they also recovered more quickly after an injury or trauma.
Improves Mental Health
Maybe it goes without saying that spending time with others makes you happier, but the profound effect your relationships have on mental health can’t be underestimated. A 2004 study in Finland of over 2000 people found that social support strengthened mental health in all respondents. Those with stronger networks have lower levels of anxiety and depression, improved empathy, and higher self-esteem. This, in turn makes other people more likely to trust you and want to connect with you, creating a positive feedback loop.
According to University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl, people who have more deep and meaningful conversations are more likely to be happy. He recorded the conversations of 79 college students and found that those who had more profound interactions also self-reported as being “happier”. In fact, the “happiest” person in the study had twice as many substantive conversations per day.
Surprisingly, it’s the conversations you have with total strangers that may drive your sense of community. While you might think that you want to be left alone or that you hate small talk, research demonstrates otherwise.
According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Generally, individuals who strike up conversations with strangers—whether it’s in taxis or while commuting—report having a much more positive overall experience while taking care of mundane tasks.
Overall, it is important to stay connected at any stage of your life, especially as a senior. Therefore, remember to talk to your elderly family members or even older adults that are strangers, since you never know who can use the chat.