This article addresses the question of biological pathways through which social integration and support may affect morbidity and mortality risks. A new concept of cumulative biological risk, allostatic load, is used to test the hypothesis that social experiences affect a range of biological systems. Data from two community-based cohorts are examined to evaluate the consistency of findings across two different age groups.
One cohort included older adults aged 70 to 79 years (N = 765); the other cohort included persons aged 58 to 59 years (N = 106). Allostatic load was assessed using identical protocols in the two cohorts. Measures of social experience were similar but not identical, reflecting levels of social integration and support for the older cohort vs. childhood and adult experiences of loving/caring relationships with parents and spouse for the younger cohort. Gender-specific analyses were examined to evaluate possible gender differences in patterns of association.
In the younger cohort, positive cumulative relationship experiences were associated with lower allostatic load for men and women. In the older cohort, men who were more socially integrated and those reporting more frequent emotional support from others had lower allostatic load scores; similar but nonsignificant associations were seen for women.
Evidence from two cohorts provides support for the hypothesis that positive social experiences are associated with lower allostatic load. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that social experiences affect a range of biological systems, resulting in cumulative differences in risks that in turn may affect a range of health outcomes.
From the Division of Geriatrics (T.E.S., L.L.-S.), School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, California; Office of Population Research (B.H.S.), Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey; and Department of Psychology (C.D.R.) and Institute on Aging (C.D.R., G.D.L.), University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.
Address reprint requests to: Dr. Teresa Seeman, Division of Geriatrics, UCLA School of Medicine, 10945 Le Conte Ave., Suite 2339, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1687. Email: email@example.com
Received for publication August 7, 2000; revision received March 27, 2001.