March 8, 2016

An Active Social Life Associated With Well-Being in Life

Social participation and social goals — even in the face of health decrements — may ease well-being decline late in life, study says.

WASHINGTON — Staying active socially despite health-related challenges appears to help lessen the decline in well-being people often experience late in life.

“Our results indicate that living a socially active life and prioritizing social goals are associated with higher late-life satisfaction and less severe declines toward the end of life,” said study lead author Denis Gerstorf of Humboldt University. The research was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

Gerstorf and his colleagues analyzed data from over 2,900 now deceased participants in the nationwide German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) Study (48 percent women, average age at death 74). The German SOEP is a nationally representative annual longitudinal survey of approximately 30,000 adults in former West Germany from 1984 to 2013 and former East Germany from 1990 to 2013.

The researchers compared well-being (as measured by answers on a scale of 0 to ten to the question, “How satisfied are you with your life concurrently, all things considered?”), participation in social activities, social goals (how important they found participating in social or political activities) and family goals (how much they valued their marriage or relationships with their children) during the last few years in life.

The research team found that being socially active and having social goals were associated with higher well-being late in life, but family goals were not. This association was independent of other relevant variables including age at death, gender, education as well as key health indicators (e.g., disability, hospital stays.

One particularly intriguing observation was that while low social participation and lack of social goals independently were associated with lower levels of well-being, when combined they each magnified the other’s effect. 

Valuing and pursuing social goals may contribute to well-being by boosting feelings of competence, concern for the next generation and belonging, said Gerstorf. Similarly, investing one’s remaining physical and psychological resources into socially oriented activities can be advantageous at a number of different levels (e.g., boosting well-being directly by carrying out joyful activities or indirectly by facilitating self-esteem and a sense of control or promoting physical and cognitive functioning).

“A socially engaged lifestyle often involves cognitive stimulation and physical activity, which in turn may protect against the neurological and physical factors underlying cognitive decline,” said Gert Wagner, one of the co-authors. “Our results indicate that social orientation is related to maintaining well-being for as long as possible into the very last years of life.”

As to why family-oriented goals did not appear to lessen the decline in well-being, Gerstorf said it may have to do with the complexity of family relationships later in life, but more research would be required to determine it. “Family life is often a mixed bag and represents not only a source of joy, but also of worry and tensions, stress and sorrow. For example, valuing one’s partner often makes people vulnerable to declines in well-being when the partner suffers from cognitive or physical limitations,” said Gerstorf. “Similarly, relationships with adult children can be ambivalent, especially when children differ in values and have not attained (in the eyes of their parents) educational and interpersonal success.”

Article: "Terminal Decline in Well-Being: The Role of Social Orientation,” by Denis Gerstorf,  Humboldt University

Terminal decline in well-being: The role of social orientation. Gerstorf, Denis; Hoppmann, Christiane A.; Löckenhoff, Corinna E.; Infurna, Frank J.; Schupp, Jürgen; Wagner, Gert G.; Ram, Nilam, Psychology and Aging, Vol 31(2), Mar 2016, 149-165
Well-being development at the end of life is often characterized by steep deteriorations, but individual differences in these terminal declines are substantial and not yet well understood. This study moved beyond typical consideration of health predictors and explored the role of social orientation and engagement. To do so, we used social variables at the behavioral level (self-ratings of social participation) and the motivational level (valuing social and family goals), assessed 2 to 4 years before death. We applied single- and multiphase growth models to up to 27-year annual longitudinal data from 2,910 now deceased participants of the nation-wide German Socio-Economic Panel Study age at death = 74 years; SD = 14; 48% women). Results revealed that leading a socially active life and prioritizing social goals in late life were independently associated with higher late-life well-being, less pronounced late-life decline, and a later onset of terminal decline. Significant interaction effects suggested that the combination of (reduced) social participation and (lowered) social goals magnifies the effects of each other. Findings also indicated that less decline in social participation was associated with less severe rates and a later onset of well-being decline. We found little evidence that valuing family goals is associated with late-life trajectories of well-being. Associations were independent of key correlates of well-being and mortality, including age at death, gender, education, disability, hospital stays, and goals in other life domains. We discuss possible pathways by which maintaining social orientation into late life may help mitigate terminal decline in well-being.

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