TORONTO, Ontario — Solitude can certainly be nice in small doses, but social activity is a key component of human health and behavior. Now, researchers from the University of Toronto say staying social is especially important for older adults. Researchers tracked over 7,000 middle-aged and older Canadians for roughly three years, discovering that those who took part in volunteer work and recreational activities were both more likely to maintain excellent health over the course of the study and less likely to suffer from a range of physical, cognitive, mental, or emotional problems.
Study authors defined “successful aging” as freedom from any physical, cognitive, mental, or emotional conditions or hindrances preventing older individuals from daily activities, as well as high levels of self-reported happiness, good physical health, and mental well-being. Researchers were sure to only include people who were successfully aging at the start of the study. The end goal was to determine if social participation has a connection with an increased likelihood of maintaining excellent health.
Roughly 72 percent of those who participated in volunteer or recreational activities at the beginning of the project were still aging successfully three years later. Meanwhile, only two-thirds of participants who weren’t engaging in these activities were aging successfully by the end of the study period. Even after study authors accounted for a wide range of sociodemographic characteristics, the results still suggested that older adults who participated in recreational activities (15%) and volunteer or charity work (17%) were more likely to maintain excellent health over the course of the study, respectively.
“Although the study’s observational nature prohibits the determination of causality, it makes intuitive sense that social activity is associated with successful aging,” says first author, Mabel Ho, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (FIFSW) and the Institute of Life Course and Aging, in a media release. “Being socially active is important no matter how old we are. Feeling connected and engaged can boost our mood, reduce our sense of loneliness and isolation, and improve our mental health and overall health.”
Can you get a prescription for social activity?
Some medical professionals are already prescribing social activities to their patients. Known as “social prescribing,” this non-pharmacological intervention integrates primary care with community services. Ideally, social prescribing can help encourage older adults to be more social by engaging in volunteering and recreational activities.
“It is encouraging that there are ways to support our physical, cognitive, mental, and emotional well-being as we age. This is wonderful news for older adults and their families who may anticipate that precipitous decline is inevitable with age,” explains senior author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. “It is important for older adults, families, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to work together to create an environment that supports a vibrant and healthy later life.”
The updated, modified concept of successful aging introduced by this study is more inclusive than efforts described by earlier studies, and encompasses both objective and subjective measures of optimal aging. The majority of earlier studies focusing on successful aging classified those with any chronic health conditions as not “aging successfully.” This time around, participants could still be classified as “aging successfully” even if they had chronic illness — so long as they engaged in various daily activities and were free of disabling chronic pain.
This refined definition also accounts for older adults’ subjective perception of their personal aging process, physical health and mental health, and their self-reported emotional well-being such as happiness and life satisfaction. Most earlier projects had totally ignored older adults’ subjective experiences of aging.
This project made use of longitudinal data from the baseline wave (2011-2015) and the first follow-up wave (2015-2018) of data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA). The CLSA featured 7,651 respondents 60 years or older at wave two who were in optimal health during the baseline phase of data collection. The sample was limited to individuals considered in excellent health at baseline (45% of respondents).
The study is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
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