Haley Bronson and Jeremy Yorgason, School of Family Life
As a result of the nearly 77 million people born during the Baby Boom, older adults are the fastest growing segment of the population in the United States1. Centenarians, those who live to be 100 years of age or older, are a burgeoning subgroup of the older adult population. They surpass the current life expectancy by 20 to 25 years. There is increasing interest regarding the antecedents to “ageing well” and the factors that hinder it. Insecure attachment and loneliness have been found to be related to lower well-being in older adults2, as well as functional decline and death3. Predictably, lack of social support is also associated with loneliness4 and poor mental health in older adults5.
Given these findings, we expect that having frequent contact with close family and friends, as well as a secure attachment, may be associated with increased longevity in centenarians. Predicting longevity and identifying factors that may be associated with an increased life expectancy has major implications for the millions of Baby Boomers that are progressing into their later years. The current study will build on existing research in an attempt to study the relationship between social connection and longevity among centenarians.
To find centenarians for our study, we used the Utah Centenarian Yearbooks provided by the Governor’s Century Club of Utah from the years 2007-2015. We attempted to find contact information for each centenarian if they were still living. If the centenarian was deceased, we looked for adult children of the centenarians. In a majority of the cases, we chose daughters due to the expected higher rate of responses from females. When daughters could not be located or last names were uncertain, we found contact information for adult sons. If adult children were not found or were deceased, grandchildren or siblings were then chosen, and finally nieces, nephews, and close friends. Each participant was mailed a survey that contained questions regarding demographics, adult attachment, social connection, basic health information, ego strength, sleep, life satisfaction, and efficacy.
Out of 722 identified centenarians, we found contact information for 680 (95%). Of those with contact information, 288 family members or centenarians provided responses to our survey (42% response rate). Approximately 95% of the centenarians were Caucasian and 76% of the centenarians were female. Centenarians in our sample lived to 102 years on average.
As seen in Table 1, prescription medications, life satisfaction, sleep problems, and attachment (closeness) were each significantly correlated with number of days lived (albeit medications and attachment were only significant at a trend level). Biological, psychological, and social factors were modestly interrelated, in expected strengths and directions.
Consistent with our hypothesis, social factors are associated with longevity among centenarians in Utah. In particular, closeness of attachment was strongly correlated with number of days lived. In other words, results indicate that having a secure attachment to a family member, caregiver, or other important person in one’s later years is predictive of increased longevity. Additionally, other social factors that were examined show a modest association with number of days lived. Relationship closeness between the centenarians and their family members, as well as special connections with grandchildren, are among those factors that point to positive social health.
Statistical analyses revealed that social support is strongly correlated with increased longevity among centenarians. Undoubtedly, social health, especially having a secure attachment to others, plays a major role in the lives of older adults and may predict an increase in the number of days lived. Understanding the implications of these factors in relation to longevity is important because interventions aimed at improving attachment and social connection could be implemented in earlier adulthood to help adults reach their later years. Further analyses will be conducted and presented at the national meetings for the Gerontological Association of America in November, 2016. A manuscript is also being developed to submit to a professional gerontology journal within the coming months.