How Staying Social Can Boost Lung Function

By MaryGrace Taylor

For older adults, the benefits of maintaining an active social life are more than just emotional. Keeping up with family and friends can also help stave off physical decline and may even lead to better breathing.

For the first time, recent research lead by Carnegie Mellon University showed that a senior’s social life can have an impact on his or her lung health. The study, published in the journal Health Psychology, found that adults in their 70s who hold a high number of social roles have stronger lung function compared to their less social counterparts.

The edge could come from the fact that being socially active tends to spur feelings of greater well-being and can motivate older adults to participate in more healthy behaviors overall. A bustling social life also tends to keep seniors more physically active, which can be a key factor in keeping lungs strong and minimizing COPD flareups.

“If you’re socially active, that usually goes beyond just sitting in a chair and talking on the telephone,” said Dr. Barbara Resnick, a gerontology researcher at the University of Maryland and past president of the American Geriatrics Society.

If you notice that an adult whom you care for seems to spend a lot of time alone or has lost interest in socializing, try to help him or her ease into participating in more communal activities. A few tips:

Find out what matters. Social interaction is only valuable if it’s meaningful to the person participating, Resnick said. Think about the things that make your senior feel engaged, and try to do more of them. If she doesn’t seem excited, let her know that you need her to help you: She might be more willing to come along if she feels like she’s doing you a favor.

Know that there’s no magic number. A quiet bookworm will almost always opt to socialize less than an outgoing extrovert, and that’s okay. “What’s important is that we don’t let people sit in a chair and stare into space, because that will never be good,” Resnick said.

Be patient. If you get no for an answer, don’t let them stop you from asking again—and again and again. “If you keep asking what is says to the person is that you care enough about them to be persistent,” Resnick said. And over time, that can make a difference.