Study: Certain Social Risks May Cause Early Death in Seniors

Using survey data from more than 8,000 adults aged 65 and older, researchers have identified eight social factors that may lead to early death in older adults.

As part of the study, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of California, San Francisco, developed a tool called the Social Frailty Index to examine factors that predict mortality, including age, gender, and medical conditions, as well as social characteristics.

The findings have applications in clinical, population health, and research settings. Clinicians may be able to use the index to help their older patients participate in advanced care planning. The index also helps identify at-risk seniors who could benefit from changes to their social interactions that could extend their lives.

8 Social Characteristics Shared by Study Participants Who Died Prematurely

Following 8,250 seniors for four years, the research team discovered that 22 percent of the group died within four years of their baseline interview.

The participants who died prematurely had the following eight social characteristics in common:

  1. Poor neighborhood cleanliness
  2. Low perceived control over their financial situation
  3. Meeting with children less than yearly
  4. Not working for a salary
  5. Not being active with children
  6. Not volunteering
  7. Feeling isolated
  8. Being treated with less courtesy or respect

Why Are the Social Frailty Index Findings Important for Older Adults?

The Social Frailty Index reveals the potential impact of healthy social connections on seniors’ physical health, according to the study’s authors. These findings, they state, are significant because medical providers previously had not accounted for these characteristics. Health care providers taking these findings into account may be able to give patients a complete care management plan.

“We often overemphasize the importance of medical conditions when thinking about longevity,” Sachin J. Shah, the study’s lead researcher, said in a news release. “This research demonstrates that our social lives are as important as medical conditions.”

The data collected from the study also helps predict the likelihood that a senior can safely and comfortably age in place. Solid social connections correlate with the ability of older adults to live independently.

Failure to consider social factors can lead to more significant inequities. For example, one of the authors states, Medicare penalizes hospital readmissions. Because of the expense of rehospitalization, some hospitals may refuse to admit Medicare recipients. Omitting risk factors creates a more significant barrier to proper treatment for marginalized groups. Patients can therefore avoid rehospitalizations if clinicians recognize and account for social factors when assessing a patient’s risk factors.

What Can Seniors Take From the Study?

This study’s findings suggest that friends, family, and community can help you live a longer and happier life. Armed with the knowledge from this study, seniors and their caretakers can structure their lives to address the eight social factors listed above.

This study also provides older adults and caregivers with the language to address these conditions with doctors, estate planners, geriatric care managers, and other family members to help ensure their needs get met.