The Surprising Effect of Social Networks on Eye Health

Source: University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center

Close family relationships and a strong social network may help older adults see the world better—literally. Writing in JAMA Ophthalmology, researchers at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center link such networks with the likelihood of older adults getting cataract surgery – a procedure with broad implications for health. Not only can family motivate older adults to take care of their fading vision, but also family members can help them get the care they need.

“It may get to a point that it takes people around them to speak up about their changing vision,” says study author Brian Stagg, MD, an ophthalmologist and health services researcher at the University of Michigan.

In observations of 9,760 adults older than 65 with Medicare benefits, those with none, one, or two family members had 40-percent lower odds of receiving cataract surgery than adults with three or more family members. The study by Kellogg Eye Center is consistent with a trend in health research that examines the impact of social isolation on health.

“A nuanced understanding of the impact of social support networks is important to develop as we implement strategies to improve access to cataract surgery for a rapidly growing older population,” Dr. Stagg said.

In the study, friends, spouses or partners did not influence the decision to have cataract surgery as much as adult children. Researchers suggest this is because an aging spouse who is around all the time may make the same adaptations at home or have health issues of their own.

But an adult child who visits intermittently might notice vision changes in an older parent that others don’t.

Primary care and ophthalmologists may need to ask older adults if transportation and support is an issue. A social worker could help navigate care, too.



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