Isolated older people should be able to benefit from friends and family for health advice, study says

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Older adults with small social networks of family and friends are less likely to attend recommended health screenings and checkups than peers who have more relationships, new research shows.

Researchers from the Health Foundation analysed information on more than 2,000 people born in 1946 in England, Scotland and Wales who are taking part in the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD).

They found that at ages 68-69 people who weren’t married or living with a partner were 24 per cent more likely to have missed health appointments, such as routine checkups, immunisations, vision and dental exams, cancer screenings, and blood pressure and cholesterol assessments, than people who were married or cohabiting.

Those who had few close friends were 31 per cent more likely than those with larger social groups to be behind on preventive health services and screenings, and those without children were 12 per cent more likely to have missed health appointments.

Becoming more socially engaged over time appeared to have a positive effect on people’s attitudes to health. At ages 53, 60-64 and 68-69, those who reported having improving relationships with their closest friends were 7 per cent less likely to fall behind on screenings and checkups than those who didn’t report having increasingly better friendships.

The findings took into account background factors such as study members’ qualifications, occupational class, chronic disease and gender.

“It suggests that if we can intervene to get people more socially connected, then there may be benefits for their preventive health care use,” said Dr Mai Stafford, the study’s lead author, speaking to Reuters news agency. “This is important for patients because taking up opportunities for checkups like bowel and breast cancer screening, flu jabs and blood pressure monitoring can help prevent serious illness and may ultimately prolong life.”

Further information

‘Social connectedness and engagement in preventive health services: an analysis of data from a prospective cohort study’ by Mai Stafford, Christian von Wagner, Sarah Perman, Jayne Taylor, Diana Kuh and Jessica Sheringham was published in the Lancet Public Health journal.