Having strong social connections benefits both physical and mental health across the life course. Research increasingly suggests that quality social relationships protect people against chronic diseases as they age and may increase longevity. The harmful effects of social isolation among older adults have been estimated to exceed those of diabetes, a well-known risk factor for other chronic diseases. In contrast, societies that are more socially cohesive are typically healthier and have lower mortality rates than those that are less so. 

“We need to do a better job of engaging our older adults, particularly those who are isolated, with the community. Multi-generational engagement would be ideal.” 

–Representative from an 

organization serving older adults

Social connectedness plays an integral part in all-around community and individual well-being. The construct looks at the frequency and quality of human interactions but is often difficult to capture and quantify. This is reflected in the scarcity of data available on the topic, especially at the local level. Nonetheless, existing information on residents' connections or lack thereof can ultimately inform or develop further data collection efforts, social programs and local engagement activities. This includes addressing the needs of many vulnerable populations who are at a higher risk of social isolation, such as older adults and individuals facing mental health problems who often experience stigmatization (visit the Respect & Social Inclusion page for more information)

One of the few sources that has local data available on social connectedness is Napa County’s Mental Health Division, which provides services to low-income people in the County living with serious mental illness. Twice per year, the Division surveys its recipients to assess their experiences of social connectedness. In the spring of 2017, a survey of Mental Health clients revealed that over 60% felt connected to their communities and approximately 70% had people with whom they could do enjoyable things. The remaining individuals who felt differently may be particularly vulnerable to and at risk for increased physical illness and further mental health complications.

Further analysis of results along any demographics (e.g., sex, age, race/ethnicity) could not be completed as the data would become unstable.

Students are more likely to succeed academically and engage in healthy behaviors when they feel safe and connected at school. The California Healthy Kids Survey is an assessment performed annually among fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh graders and non-traditional (i.e., those in alternative public education settings/pathways, who frequently do not fall into clearly designated grade levels) students. The survey includes questions about the frequency with which students participate in meaningful ways in the classroom. “Meaningful participation” included doing things to be helpful, doing things that make a difference, doing fun activities and helping decide things such as classroom rules. For Napa County in 2017, seventh grade students reported the highest levels of meaningful participation in school at 76%, while eleventh grade students and non-traditional students had lower levels of meaningful participation at 63% and 59% respectively.

State data and demographic breakdown for this indicator are not readily available.

“Teens have expressed a lack of available activities targeted to their demographic. Being a "resort" town, many social events are designed for the tourist or affluent local."


–Representative from a non-profit organization serving families and youth

Students also have opportunities outside the classroom to engage with others, such as clubs, sports, orchestra, dance teams and volunteering. These activities help youth build confidence and social connectedness, find hobbies and interests and develop healthy attitudes and behaviors (e.g., regular exercise, drug avoidance). To further explore data on youth physical activity, navigate to the named section in the Outdoor Spaces & Buildings page; data on other extracurricular activities is not readily available. It is important to note that a portion of Napa County students may not engage in any additional activities, and there are many reasons for this. In fact, teens in Napa County have expressed a lack of available and accessible activities for them and their peers. This does not ultimately mean that they are unhealthy or lacking in social connectedness, or that they will mature into unhealthy adults, but rather helps provide a context to better engage youth.

Another key piece in a child's social development is the presence of a single caring adult in their life. This is particularly true among children who have gone through one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) — through a healthy relationship with a trusted adult, they experience significant improvements in resiliency. For more information on ACEs, navigate to the Youth Experiences section in the Respect & Social Inclusion page.

Many studies have shown a strong connection between social interaction and the health and well-being of older adults. Through activities such as story-sharing, having meals, watching movies and partaking in hobbies with others, older adults can experience lower rates of health decline and disease. Primarily, rewarding social relationships are those that are regular, intimate (e.g., face-to-face) and mutually gratifying. 

In 2015, Napa County's Healthy Aging Population Initiative (HAPI) surveyed older adults to examine their frequency of social interactions — 35% of respondents saw their friends or family daily; 42% saw them weekly; 10% saw them monthly; and over 10% saw them seldom at most. Naturally, older adults who live close to their loved ones are more likely to interact with them; among older adults who have children, more than half lived within 50 miles of them. Those who saw friends or family less frequently would be considered at a higher risk for social isolation and related health complications.

In the same HAPI survey, respondents were also asked about their company at home. Over half of older adults lived with someone else alone and 42% reported living alone. Among those who lived with others, the most common co-inhabitants were their spouse or partner (80%) and children (15%). Several older adults also resided with a friend (8%) or another relative like a nephew/ niece or son/daughter-in-law (5%). Note that these are not mutually exclusive, and older adults may have multiple co-inhabitants. Living with at least one other person can provide older adults with both a source of assistance (e.g., with care or technology) and more opportunities for social interaction.

References


Overview

Newman, K.M. (2018). Is Social Connection the Best Path to Happiness? Greater Good Magazine (UC Berkeley). Retrieved January 15, 2019 from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_social_connection_the_best_path_to_happiness

Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(1_suppl), S54-S66.

Yang, Y. C., Boen, C., Gerken, K., Li, T., Schorpp, K., & Harris, K. M. (2016). Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), 578-583.


Social Connectedness

Get Healthy Stay Healthy. (2018). Social Connectedness–What Does It Mean?. Retrieved January 15, 2019 from https://www.gethealthystayhealthy.com/articles/social-connectedness-what-does-it-mean


School Participation

Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2014). A decade of science informing policy: The story of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Retrieved December 10, 2018 from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/A-Decade-of-Science-Informing-Policy.pdf.

Doré, I., O'Loughlin, J. L., Schnitzer, M. E., Datta, G. D., & Fournier, L. (2018). The longitudinal association between the context of physical activity and mental health in early adulthood. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 14, 121-130.

Fredricks, J. A., & Eccles, J. S. (2005). Developmental benefits of extracurricular involvement: Do peer characteristics mediate the link between activities and youth outcomes?. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34(6), 507-520.

Holt, N. L., Neely, K. C., Slater, L. G., Camiré, M., Côté, J., Fraser-Thomas, J., ... & Tamminen, K. A. (2017). A grounded theory of positive youth development through sport based on results from a qualitative meta-study. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10(1), 1-49.

Kwan, M., Bobko, S., Faulkner, G., Donnelly, P., & Cairney, J. (2014). Sport participation and alcohol and illicit drug use in adolescents and young adults: A systematic review of longitudinal studies. Addictive Behaviors, 39(3), 497-506.


Older Adult Interactions

National Institutes of Health. (2019). Research Suggests a Positive Correlation between Social Interaction and Health. Retrieved February 15, 2019 from https://www.nia.nih.gov/about/living-long-well-21st-century-strategic-directions-research-aging/research-suggests-positive

Suttie, J. (2014). How Social Connections Keep Seniors Healthy. Greater Good Magazine (UC Berkeley). Retrieved February 15, 2019 from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_social_connections_keep_seniors_healthy

Zhang, L., Liu, C., Sheng, Z., Zhou, H., Hu, J., & Chen, Y. (2017). The relationship between frequency of social interaction and emotional well-being among older adults. Innovation in Aging, 1(suppl_1), 1161-1162.