Researchers have determined that our social relationships at any age are important for both mental and physical health. And that's especially true for older people. But this idea, which is widely accepted among doctors, social scientists and psychologists, isn't yet fully understood. Currently, the links between health and friend and family relationships are self-reported, so we only know that people who say they have good friends and supportive family have better health than those without. But what each person considers a "good" relationship, and how they feel about it can vary depending on personality and other factors.

That's why a number of researchers are delving into the details of social relationships. Beyond one's perception of friendships, what are the feelings and interactions that really matter? Is there an ideal number of friends or time spent with them? Is more time spent with friends — or a greater number of friends — better? Or is the quality of relationships most important?

It's that last question we're starting to get answers about.

Quality vs. quantity

According to new research in the journal Psychology and Aging, for most older people, quality of friendships and family ties matters more than quantity. Scientists at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom examined the data from 496 Americans who had previously participated in the RAND American Life Panel. First, they asked about relationships, both online and IRL (In Real Life), including the number of close friends, family and neighbors — as well as the number of people who were outside that inner circle, like coworkers, childhood or community friends, or service providers (think mail carriers, hairdressers or baristas). The researchers also did a second, more in-depth survey of 298 of the original panel participants, asking them about how they felt about those social connections.

They found that "Older participants reported smaller social networks, largely because of reporting fewer peripheral others. Yet older age was associated with better well-being." Those fewer, but higher-quality relationships made all the difference. It's important to note that this kind of research is based on how people say they feel — it's almost impossible to objectively measure feelings of loneliness, or happiness or any other emotion.

But it's significant that over a sample of almost 300 people, quality trumped quantity. "Well-being was more strongly related to social satisfaction than to the reported number of close friends — suggesting that it is the perception of relationship quality rather than the perception of relationship quantity that is relevant to reporting better well-being," according to the researchers.

This echoes research on younger people: When it comes to teenagers, being popular isn't as important as having a few good friends.

Introvert vs. extrovert

Getting into the "whys" of how relationships with others keeps us healthy is important because unlike an antibiotic, where a dose of medicine will work similarly on most people who take it, psychology is more individual in nature. Each of us has a different need or bandwidth when it comes to social relationships. So while seeing friends daily and speaking with family every day or even multiple times a day can be right for one person, that could be way too much for another, who finds a weekly conversation or meet-up just as fulfilling.

People who get energy from social contact are understood by psychologists to be extroverts, and those who are drained by it are introverts. That doesn't mean that introverts don't need or want friends, but just that less contact and contact with a smaller number of people works best for them.

Looking from the outside in, it can seem like some elderly people's lives are quite lonely. And they might be — but it's important to have a conversation with the person to know that. After all, if they don't feel lonely, they won't suffer the ill effects of lack of social contact. And it could be that a person often surrounded by friends and family still doesn't feel like they're getting enough meaningful socializing, which could lead to some of the negative health outcomes associated with lack of connection, including depression, higher incidences of heart disease and premature mortality.

As in most of life, it's important not to make assumptions about someone's life. So have a conversation with someone if you're worried about their loneliness — maybe over a meal where you can talk about this and other subjects of mutual interest. Ask them how they're feeling. Their twice-a-week walk with friends and time with animals, books, gardening, or creative activities might be totally fulfilling — or they might want a lot more contact with others than that, but need help finding it.

Just ask how someone is feeling — and listen to what they say.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

No matter your age, it's the quality of friendships that matters, not quantity
New research about relationships backs up this age-old adage.