Want To Age Optimally? New Study Reveals the Power of Social Participation

Aging Time Clock Concept

A three-year study tracking over 7000 middle-aged and older Canadians found that high rates of social participation, through volunteer work and recreational activities, were associated with successful aging, a metric defined by freedom from major physical, cognitive, mental, or emotional conditions, along with self-reported happiness and health. Despite being observational, the findings suggest that staying socially active could boost mental health, lessen feelings of loneliness, and improve overall health, prompting some medical professionals to advocate for ‘social prescribing,’ or encouraging older adults to engage in such activities.

The results highlight the significance of participation in volunteer work and leisure activities for the elderly.

A recent study tracked the lifestyle of over 7000 middle-aged and elderly Canadians for a span of roughly three years, aiming to explore the connection between increased social involvement and successful aging in later life.

The research revealed that individuals who engaged in volunteering or participated in leisure activities consistently displayed superior health throughout the ensuing three years of the study. Moreover, these individuals were less prone to developing issues related to physical, cognitive, mental, or emotional health.

The researchers defined successful aging as freedom from any serious physical, cognitive, mental, or emotional conditions that prevent daily activities, as well as high levels of self-reported happiness, good physical health, and mental health.

The researchers only included participants who were successfully aging at the start of the study. The goal was to see whether social participation was associated with the likelihood that they would maintain excellent health.

Approximately 72% of these respondents who participated in volunteer or recreational activities at the start of the study were still aging successfully three years later. However, only two-thirds of those who were not participating in these activities were aging successfully at the end of the study.

After taking into account a wide range of sociodemographic characteristics, the findings indicated that respondents who participated in recreational activities and volunteer or charity work were 15% and 17% more likely to maintain excellent health across 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. “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.”

Some medical professionals are now prescribing social activities for their patients, called ‘social prescribing’, a non-pharmacological intervention that integrates primary care with community services. Social prescribing can be used to encourage older adults to engage 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,” says senior author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging and 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 modified concept of successful aging introduced in this study is more inclusive than earlier studies and encompasses both objective and subjective measures of optimal aging. Most previous research on successful aging classified those with any chronic health conditions as not “aging successfully”.

In the current study, respondents could still be classified as “aging successfully” if they had a chronic illness, as long as they can engage in various daily activities and are free of disabling chronic pain. The revised definition also incorporates older adults’ subjective perception of their aging process, physical health, and mental health, as well as their self-reported emotional well-being such as happiness and life satisfaction. Most earlier studies had ignored the older adults’ subjective experience of aging.

The study was recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It uses 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) to examine factors associated with optimal aging.

The CLSA included 7,651 respondents who were aged 60 years or older at wave 2 who were in optimal health during the baseline wave of data collection. The sample was restricted to those who were in excellent health at baseline, which was only 45% of the respondents.

Reference: “Is Social Participation Associated with Successful Aging among Older Canadians? Findings from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA)” by Mabel Ho, Eleanor Pullenayegum and Esme Fuller-Thomson, 6 June 2023, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
DOI: 10.3390/ijerph20126058

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