Study: Generous oldsters live longer

Nov. 13, 2002 at 4:57 PM
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ANN ARBOR, Mich., Nov. 13 (UPI) -- Older Americans who are generous with their time and help can reduce their risk of dying prematurely by 60 percent, a new study released Wednesday suggests.

The study, to be published in a future issue of the journal Psychology Science, found people who reported providing no help to others were more than twice as likely to die sooner than people who gave of themselves.

Psychologist Stephanie Brown, the study's author, said previous studies have credited receiving support from another individual with prolonging life. The new research contradicts that finding, Brown said. It is the giving, not the receiving, that increases longevity.

"Making a contribution to the lives of other people may help to extend our own lives," said Brown, of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

The study, which was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, examined data on 423 older couples who were selected randomly from a community-based sample of people first interviewed in 1987, then followed for five years to see how they coped with the inevitable changes of later life.

In the first set of interviews, the husbands and wives were asked a series of questions about whether they provided any practical support to friends, neighbors or relatives, including help with housework, childcare, errands or transportation.

They also were asked how much they could count on help from friends or family members if they needed it and about giving and receiving emotional support to or from their spouses, including being willing to listen a spouse who needs to talk.

During the five-year period of the study, 134 people died.

In her analysis of the link between mortality and giving and receiving help, Brown adjusted the data for a variety of factors, including age, gender and physical and emotional health. Overall, Brown found 75 percent of men and 72 percent of women reported providing some help without pay to friends, relatives or neighbors in the year before they were surveyed.

Receiving help from others was not linked to a reduced risk of mortality, however.

"These findings suggest that it isn't what we get from relationships that makes contact with others so beneficial. It's what we give," Brown said.

The results, she noted, are consistent with the possibility the benefits of social contact are shaped, in part, by the evolutionary advantages of helping others.

"It is well-established that social contact has powerful health benefits," Brown said. "My work demonstrated that the benefits of social contact, and of receiving support, were entirely accounted for by giving. I consider this work to be important because our findings are in opposition to decades of research that attribute the benefits of social contact to the support that is received from others."

A similar study by another U-M researcher, Liang Krause Bennet, published last year in the journal Psychology and Aging, reached similar conclusions.

Dr. Dean Ornish, who wrote "Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy," said longevity prospects increase dramatically with the number of close relationships a person has.

"It has been found that people who volunteer to help others also greatly increase their health and survival," Ornish wrote in a newsletter. "Investigators have found that activities involving regular volunteer work were among the most powerful predictors of reduced mortality rates."

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(Reported by Marcella S. Kreiter, UPI Correspondent, in Chicago)

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