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New CHÉOS research to explore how social relationships affect healthy aging

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In her newest research project, Dr. Annalijn Conklin investigates how older people’s social relationships manifest biologically and ultimately affect disease outcomes related to healthy aging.

The study, supported by a CIHR Catalyst Grant, will use data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) to address its research questions. The CLSA contains data on 51,000 people (45 to 85 years of age) collected through telephone and home interviews.
Previous research in this area has suggested that social relationships can have significant impacts on a person’s health and survival — a 2010 meta-analytic review found that strong social relationships may decrease mortality risk by as much as 50 per cent (comparable to the magnitude of the mortality risk related to smoking).

“We know that social relationships are important for healthy aging but most research in the area lacks attention to gender and oversimplifies social relationships and health outcomes” said Dr. Conklin.

To address this gap, Dr. Conklin and the study co-investigators, Dr. Gerry Veenstra of UBC Sociology and CHÉOS Scientist Dr. Nadia Khan, will examine multiple outcomes of physical health and longevity from the CLSA.

Blood pressure, waist circumference, and body mass index (BMI) are key indicators for future disease and mortality and are included as variables in the study. Disease outcomes will be recorded for each of these variables: hypertension, central obesity (waist circumference), and general obesity (BMI). Then, an index for overall burden of disease will be calculated using number of disease outcomes per person (0-3).

To more fully explore the effect of social relationships, the researchers will look at the impact of both structural and functional components of relationships.

Structural components are the quantitative aspects of relationships. The researchers will study marital status, living arrangement, social networks, and social isolation, which are available in the CLSA data. Functional components relate to a person’s perceived availability of support and reported receipt of support.

The researchers are also taking a unique approach to assessing the impact of gender by including specific gendered variables — variables like care-giving/-receiving, dependents, education, income source, occupation, sexual orientation, and aspects of aging that have been shown to be heavily gender-dependent.

“Inclusion of these variables will allow us to more adequately consider how gender fundamentally determines the impact of social ties on longevity” Conklin explained. “Aging is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon with considerable variation in experiences, circumstances, and environments across the country and social spectrum.”

The number of seniors now exceeds the number of children in Canada. This study will shed light on the effects of the various components of social relationships and how they interact to impact key physiological determinants of healthy aging and longevity. Understanding how these social determinants impact aging is critical and will provide evidence to policy makers to shape services and programs to better support healthy aging for older women and older men in Canada.

Dr. Conklin is currently looking for a postdoctoral fellow to assist with this project, details here.

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