Active Social Life Linked to Better Physical, Psychological Health

Lindsey Shapiro, PhD avatar

by Lindsey Shapiro, PhD |

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Greater engagement in social activities and positive social support were associated with better physical and psychological health among people with multiple sclerosis (MS) in a recent study.

These data “suggest that social integration and social support should be a crucial part of MS management,” the researchers wrote, adding that the findings may “implore MS practitioners to pay greater attention to individuals’ social engagement and prioritise such in their assessments and treatment plans.”

The study, “Keeping it together: The role of social integration on health and psychological well-being among individuals with multiple sclerosis,” was published in the journal Health & Social Care in the Community.

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Certain day-to-day challenges, including mobility issues, disease exacerbations, unemployment, social stigma, or inadequate accommodations can limit social interaction for people with MS, risking isolation and loneliness.

In turn, low social engagement — called social integration — and a diminished social support network affect a person’s physical and mental well-being.

Researchers in the U.S. investigated how MS symptoms influence the social health of adults with MS, and whether social factors  can impact physical and mental health.

Participants completed a survey pertaining to general health, MS symptoms, psychological well-being, lifestyle, personality, social support, and social integration at the study’s start (baseline) and again at follow-up, about 2.5 years later.

Overall, 183 people were recruited and participated in the study at baseline, and 108 returned for follow-up. Of those who returned, most were female (90%), and had a relapsing-remitting form of MS (94%). Their mean age at follow-up was 47, and their mean disease duration was 11 years.

As expected, results showed that MS symptoms — specifically, pain and fatigue — significantly influenced sociability among the participants.

In turn, social well-being influenced other aspects of health. People who were less socially engaged perceived their general, physical, and mental health to be poorer than those with greater social integration and support.

Other factors that positively influenced patients’ perceived health included healthy eating and exercise, a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, age, and a lack of Type D personality, a type characterized by worry, irritability, and social inhibition.

Psychological well-being was assessed via six domains: personal relationships, autonomy, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and self-acceptance.

Three aspects of socialization — social integration, social support, and engagement in social and intellectual activities — were associated with better psychological well-being across all six domains.

Other factors that predicted psychological well-being in some or all domains were the absence of a Type D personality, being single, lower alcohol use, older age, higher education, and smoking.

Among participants who completed the follow-up, declines in physical health and increases in depression were observed over time.

“There were no other significant changes in mental health, MS symptomatology, and [psychological well-being],” the researchers wrote. “Nonetheless, we found that one’s prior social integration, social support, and engagement in social and intellectual activities at their baseline assessment continued to predict these health outcomes.”

Specifically, they added, social integration was the greatest predictor of general health at follow-up, and also associated with better physical and mental health. Aspects of sociability remained predictors of all psychological well-being domains except for autonomy at follow-up.

“It is quite evident in the present study that social integration and support are important factors for maintaining health among individuals with MS,” the researchers wrote.

“Taken together, our findings help to clarify how social integration, lifestyle factors and personality influence varying aspects of functioning in MS and suggest that a holistic approach that takes into account these wellness domains is most ideal,” the investigators added.

While these findings are “not entirely surprising given the known association between social connectedness and overall health,” they wrote, “we found that social integration played as great if not larger role on PWB [psychological well-being] than it had on health.

“Placing a greater emphasis on PWB and what it means to flourish despite one’s illness are important aspects of ‘living a good life,’” they added.

The research team also suggested that studies in older adults, those with faster progressing disease, and people with other co-existing health disorders may help in better understanding the relationship between sociability and health.

“Further interventional studies aimed at improving social integration and reducing social isolation are warranted in an effort to promote and maintain overall health and well-being,” the investigators wrote.

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