Should retirement planning include strategies for being active in social groups? Perhaps yes, researchers say.
Losing membership in social groups during the retirement transition may be tied to lower quality of life and higher risk of death over the next six years, according to a new study of older adults in England.
"As people reach the end of their working lives, they are typically exposed to a lot of advice about how to plan their finances, medical care, and physical exercise in order to have a long and healthy retirement," said lead author Niklas K. Steffens of The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
Social group membership may not be a part of this discussion, although the new results indicate that perhaps it should be, Steffens told Reuters Health by email.
"Social groups provide you with a sense of identity," he said. "Amongst other things, they give you a sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose."
The researchers studied survey responses from 424 adults who retired between 2002 and 2010 and 424 similar older adults who did not go through the retirement transition. The surveys included questions on work status, age, sex, subjective physical health, quality of life and socioeconomic status.
The surveys also asked about membership in eight categories of social groups, including social clubs, church or other religious groups.
About three-quarters of both groups were married.
For those who retired and were members of two social groups while still working, the risk of death over the next six years was 2 percent if they maintained both group memberships, 5 percent if they lost one group membership and 12 percent if they lost both group memberships, according to a report in BMJ Open.
Quality of life also decreased as group membership decreased.
"These effects are not small but are comparable with those derived from regular physical exercise," Steffens said.
This study provides initial evidence of some connection between social groups and quality of life or mortality, but the statistics didn't really directly test number of membership changes, said Mo Wang of the University of Florida, Warrington College of Business in Gainesville, who was not involved in the analysis.
Since the comparison group did not go through retirement, it is hard to compare them to the retirement group, Wang told Reuters Health by phone.
"The issue with this kind of study is causality is very difficult to determine," he said. "While my inclination is that social membership would probably help directly or indirectly," that's not necessarily the case based on this study, he said.
Healthier people are likely to join more groups and be more active to start with, he noted.
In any case, an important part of joining a new group is making sure it's a good fit for you, he said - make sure you choose one you enjoy and that does not cause you stress.
"If you are in the process of retiring and don't belong to any group, join one," Steffens said. "If you exercise regularly, this is also likely to be good for you and your health."
Exercising in a group may be even better, he said.
"One important way for all of us to enhance the health of those who are retired is to support them in their efforts to be part of groups that provide them with a sense of communality and belonging," he said.