Having friends is not only important for elderly people's social well being, but also for their mental and physical health, says a new study.
The research led by University of Chicago has shown that not having many close friends, and feeling of loneliness, contributes to poorer health for many older adults.
"Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health, regardless of whether it prompts feelings of loneliness or a perceived lack of social support," said study co-author Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago, and a leading expert on aging.
"(However) the relationship between social disconnectedness and mental health appears to operate through feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support," she added.
The study showed that most socially connected older adults were three times as likely to report very good or excellent health compared to those who were least connected, regardless of whether they felt isolated.
Older adults who felt least isolated were five times as likely to report very good or excellent health as those who felt most isolated, regardless of their actual level of social connectedness.
Feeling of loneliness and isolation triggered by social disconnectedness leads to poor mental health, say the researchers.
The study suggests that older adults who are able to withstand socially isolating circumstances, or adjust their expectations so that they do not develop strong feelings of loneliness, may fare better.
Aging often brings changes in social relationships as individuals retire, take up new activities, endure losses and experience health changes.
"We need to better understand how older adults adapt to changes in their social relationships," Waite added.
"For some older adults, a shrinking circle of friends and family can lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation. Our findings suggest that those who adapt to losses so that they don't feel isolated fare better with respect to both physical and mental health," said lead author Erin York Cornwell, a Postdoctoral Associate in Sociology at Cornell University.
The study has been published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.