Given the choice, most of us would probably rather retire with a broad social network and a deep bank account. Of course, the choice isn’t entirely up to us, since there are a lot of complicated factors that influence how strong the social connections we develop are and how much money we’re able to save over time.
That makes it all the more important to understand the implications someone’s social environment and financial situation can have for retirement.
A recent study published in BMC Geriatrics looked at exactly that question. The study included 3,109 retirees in Australia who were surveyed at a single point in time, and 404 who were tracked into the future. It looked at their subjective sense of financial security and their levels of social connectedness, as well as how those factors predicted their mental and physical health.
There’s plenty of reason to believe both these factors would be associated with healthy aging. In the case of financial security, “more money more problems” generally does not apply to retirement. And as far as social connectedness, a wide range of studies have linked it to better outcomes in older age, including lower risk of depression in a study I wrote about last week.
Indeed, the study in BMC Geriatrics found that both social connectedness and financial security correlated with better physical and mental health, whether the data was considered at a single point in time or tracked into the future.
Overall, the researchers found that the effect of social connectedness was four times as strong as that of financial security. So given the choice between a lot of rewarding relationships and a lot of money, the relationships would probably be a safer bet for retirement.
There’s an interesting twist, though. Statistically, the link between social connectedness and better health partly accounted for by the link between financial security and better health. More work needs to be done to understand precisely what’s going on here, but this finding raises the interesting possibility that a sense of financial security contributes to mental and physical health in retirement partly because it can help with building better social connections.
In a nod to that idea, the researchers titled their paper Friendships that Money Can Buy. The findings in the paper are important insofar as both loneliness in older age and a lack of retirement savings are widespread problems. In the US, only about 36 percent of non-retired adults say their retirement savings are on track. Meanwhile, one-third of people surveyed between the ages of 50 and 80 say they are lonely.
There isn’t a quick solution to the fact that most people apparently don’t have the resources to save adequately for retirement, or that a huge swath of older adults are lonely. However, the results of this study suggest that measures addressing the former problem, such as policies targeting economic inequality, could ultimately help with the latter. Even if social connections are more important than money, having enough money makes a difference when it affects retirees’ ability to develop those social connections.