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Meaningful social roles may improve health and well-being for people in retirement

Heaven B, Brown LJ, White M, et al. Supporting well-being in retirement through meaningful social roles: Systematic review of intervention studies Milbank Q. 2013;91:222-87.

Review question

What kinds of interventions have been developed to support social roles in retirement?

How much have the interventions improved perceived roles?

Have these roles improved health or well-being?


Understanding how to optimize the health and well-being of older people is increasingly important as the number of older people living in developed nations continues to rise.

Social roles in later life have been found to improve health and well-being, but after retiring from work, people may lose roles that provide them with purpose and social contacts.

How the review was done

The review focused on studies from developed countries like Canada, and evaluated interventions that create meaningful and socially engaging activities for healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 75, during their transition to retirement.

The studies included in the review had to focus on perceived social roles, individual health or well-being as outcomes.

14 eligible articles were identified that reported on 11 different studies conducted between 1965 and 2009. These studies evaluated seven unique interventions.

What the researchers found

Interventions that included providing clear roles to older adults and that involved support groups had some effect on improving life satisfaction, social support and activity, physical health, functional health and cognition.

Taking on tasks can increase social contact, physical activity and income, all of which may independently improve health and well-being.

Demographic factors such as gender and socioeconomic status (having limited income, for example) may affect what social roles people prefer.

There are problems with the quality of studies included in this review, limiting the confidence one can place in the results.


Social role interventions may improve health and well-being for adults aged 55-75 who are in retirement transition.

Explicit, meaningful roles and group support can lead to improved:

  • life satisfaction
  • social support and activity
  • physical health, functional health and cognition.

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