September 16, 1999
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Social Activities Found to Prolong Life

By William J. Cromie
Gazette Staff

Thomas Glass

Photo by Kris Snibbe

Scientists are always coming up with ways for older people to live healthier and longer lives, such as doing exercises they can’t or don’t want to do. Now, researchers have found an easier way: people 65 years and older can extend their lives by doing things that are easy and enjoyable, like going to church or movies, shopping, gardening, and even playing bingo.

"Social and productive activities that involve little or no enhancement of physical fitness lower the risk of all causes of death as much as exercise does," says Thomas Glass, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

To reach that conclusion Glass and his colleagues followed 2,761 men and women, 65 and older, for 13 years in what he claims is "the first study to examine the impact of social and productive activities on the risk of death among elderly people independently of physical fitness activities."

The actions they refer to include going to church, restaurants, and sports events, taking short trips, playing cards and games, socializing for its own sake, gardening, cooking for others, shopping, community work and, of course, paid employment.

"Such activities should not replace exercise," Glass cautions, "but exclusive emphasis on exercise may be overly narrow. It is clear from our study that social engagement can have as much effect on prolonging life as fitness activities."

The best of all worlds, obviously, is to exercise in a social setting. Instead of jogging alone, or using an exercise machine at home, Glass advises oldsters to walk the mall or work out with others. "That way, people are more likely to keep to an exercise routine and to get added benefit from it," notes Glass. "That goes for all adults as well as seniors."

Even someone who is too old or frail to exercise can benefit from social engagement, the Harvard researchers reported last month in the British Medical Journal. "Social and productive activities independently confer equivalent survival advantages," Glass’ group wrote. "Among elders who were least physically active, those who were most socially active and productive lived longer than those who were least social and productive."

The researchers accounted for differences in age, sex, weight, marital status, smoking, and histories of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer to reach their conclusions.

Stay Involved To Stay Alive

Something is going on independently of exercise to keep elders alive, but what is it?

Glass admits he doesn’t know precisely. However, he believes that keeping social and busy "evokes changes in the brain that protect against cognitive decline. This, in turn, influences physical processes regulated by the brain such as cellular immunity or mobilizing the body’s defenses against disease."

In other research, Glass and two colleagues tracked the effect of social disengagement on 2,812 people 65 years and older for 12 years. They found the odds of experiencing cognitive decline were approximately twice as great in those reporting no social ties than in those who had frequent contact with relatives and friends, attended religious services, or participated in regular social activities.

Another study revealed that rats who sustain brain injury and who socialize and have fun during recovery do much better than those who are socially isolated, when both groups receive optimum physical care.

Then there’s stress. "In old age, the body reacts more strongly and recovers more slowly to stressful events, which puts wear and tear on the heart, lungs, and blood vessels," Glass points out. "I think social and productive behavior lessens such deleterious effects."

The researchers suspected that this would be the case but were surprised at the magnitude of the effect. "Usually it’s difficult to separate the effects of socializing and staying busy from keeping physically fit, but we’ve found that the former can have as much effect on survival as the latter," Glass notes.

The finding that social and productive activities produce the greatest effect among the least physically active has important implications for those considered too frail or disabled to exercise regularly. Many nursing homes and senior centers have developed programs of exercise for such people. These programs provide more benefit when done in a social context, Glass maintains. "Those who find exercising challenging or difficult are less likely to avoid it when it includes meeting and talking with other people," he says. "And they get the double advantage of working their minds as well as their bodies."

Society Doesn’t Act Its Age

Keeping oldsters fit is a growing national concern because they are undergoing a population explosion. Due largely to the baby boom following World War II, the proportion of the nation’s population age 65 and older will double in the next few decades. The number of Americans age 90 and older will increase from 1 million in 1999 to 10 million in the year 2050. "Society is not prepared for this," Glass comments. "Society has not adjusted its public policy to reflect its old age."

To enhance survival among these people, Glass and his colleagues recommend better-designed living spaces, more accessible transportation, and other services that maximize opportunities for social interaction. They also suggest increasing opportunities for delayed retirement, part-time work, volunteerism, and late-life learning such as Internet training.

As an example, Glass is working with a group from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on a project to put seniors into inner-city elementary schools. The oldsters work with children who need more help developmentally than most teachers have time to give. "We are measuring the impact on both the seniors and the kids," Glass says. "So far the program, called the Experience Corps, looks promising.

"By helping to keep the faucet of social engagement running for elders," Glass continues, "society taps into a huge source of skill and experience. In return, older people receive the kind of meaning and purpose in their lives that buffers them from physical and cognitive deterioration."


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College