In the first part of the 20th century, the average life expectancy was only 45 years. Today the average life expectancy has increased to 78.6 years. Our sense of control over our lives is the key in determining whether we just add years to our life or we add life to those years.
Be a social animal
At any age, there is an important connection between social support and good health. Social support in its many forms has a powerful positive influence on health and can reduce some of the negative health-related aspects of aging. On the other hand, as we get older, social isolation is a risk factor for poor health.
In study after study, medical researchers have found that people who have friends they can turn to for affirmation, empathy, advice, assistance, and affection are more likely to survive health challenges like heart attacks, and are less likely to develop diseases.
Many studies have shown that people who feel lonely and isolated have a 20-50 percent higher rate of premature death from virtually all causes when compared with those who have a sense of community and connection with others.
A study that tracked thousands of people over a nine-year period showed that those with strong emotional ties with family and friends had significantly lower death rates. In another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from Duke University found that out of more than 1,000 heart patients, those that did not have social support from friends and family were three times as likely to die within five years of diagnosis as those who had strong support from family and friends. The researchers concluded that having someone to talk to is a very powerful medicine.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine from research done at the Harvard School of Public Health actually showed an engaged, socially active lifestyle helps slow mental decline in older adults. According to the investigators, risks of mental decline were approximately twice as great in the respondents who reported few or no social ties than those with five or more social ties. They added that no one type of social connection—be it spouse, family, or friend—was more protective than another when it came to preventing mental decline.
Studies also suggest that socialization may reduce daily stress because of the stimulating give and take of interpersonal relationships. Stress increases levels of certain hormones that can inhibit areas of the brain important to memory and other intellectual processes.
Social support carries many meanings, including factors such as information, trust, care, love, esteem, networks, and mutual obligation. In general there are three categories of social support necessary for healthy aging: Emotional support involves the verbal and nonverbal communication of caring and concern—that you are valued and loved. Intellectual support gives you access to information, advice, appraisal, and guidance from others. Instrumental support gives you access to material or physical assistance, such as transportation, money, or help with daily chores.
Investigators measure the availability of close personal relationships asking if you have:
- Someone special whom you can lean on
- Someone who feels very close to you
- Someone to confide in
- Someone to share feelings with.
Other researchers who measure social support might ask questions like:
- If you were broke, is there a friend who would loan you money?
- If you were sick, is there a friend who would help take care of your children until you feel better? (If you don’t have children, how about your pets or plants?)
If most of the answers to these types of questions are “no,” you might have a higher risk of disease and death from all causes, according to many scientific studies that have been done. These include increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and some cancers.
The evidence is pretty clear from a healthy aging standpoint that strong social support plays a very important role. Pay attention to your exercise and diet—but don’t forget to nourish those relationships.
Do I need a checkup?
Healthy adults often ask this important question. In the past, all adults were urged to have an annual physical exam. If your physician has suggested you continue that annual visit, it is important that you follow that advice.
Today, however, there is more emphasis on periodic visits based on a person’s health status, medical history, and individual risk factors for specific diseases. It is extremely important to be responsible for scheduling and receiving preventive checks based on your gender, age, and history.
Without periodic screening, the first sign of a disease is often a damaging event. For example, you could find out you have heart disease by having a heart attack. Or you could discover you have osteoporosis by having a hip or spinal fracture. Screening tests allow you to prevent these debilitating events, to spot these and other illnesses way before symptoms appear. By identifying potential diseases early, you can get appropriate treatment before the disease process is irreversible and damaging.
As you age, your risk for health problems such as heart disease and cancer increases, making periodic screenings to detect warning of potential trouble more essential than ever.
Recent surveys, however, show that many older Americans are not taking advantage of established methods of protecting their health and lives, including those paid by Medicare. Using preventative services like mammograms, colorectal cancer screening, and vaccinations—plus making healthy lifestyle choices like incorporating exercise, good nutrition, and stress management—can make an enormous contribution to a higher quality of life as you get older.
An excellent place to get your age and gender recommendations is the United States Preventative Services Task Force Grading System. The USPSTF is an independent panel of non-federal experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine and is composed of primary care providers, such as internists, pediatricians, family physicians, nurses, OB/GYNs, and behavior health specialists.
The USPSTF conducts scientific evidence reviews of a broad range of clinical preventive health care services, such as screening, counseling, and preventive medications and develops recommendations for primary care clinicians and health systems. These recommendations are published in the form of “Recommendation Statements.”
You can get the USPSTF guidelines at www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org. It is recommended that you discuss these guidelines with your doctor, as individual physicians may have different recommendations for certain patients with health risks and individual needs. This is especially true if you have a family history of any diseases. In many cases, more frequent monitoring and additional screenings may be necessary.
Doing well by doing good
In the process of volunteering and helping someone else, people discover a part of themselves that perhaps they never fully appreciated before. Consequently, they feel a deeper sense of self-worth. This increased self-esteem is an excellent buffer against stress and negativity. It can also be self-perpetuating in what is described as the “cycle of caring.” Knowing you have made a difference in the lives of others through “doing good” can make you feel good. And feeling good can also increase your likelihood of doing well.
Ken Pelletier, PhD, author and health educator, suggests that altruism takes many years to develop and reaches full expression only in our later years. Perhaps this is why it is in mid and later life, when other issues are often resolved, that altruism begins to flourish and becomes even more important for individual health.
Dr. Pelletier states to be of service to others may or may not be the antidote to the isolation and anger leading to heart disease, but it is certainly an inviting alternative. The desire to serve others is not a mere belief or philosophical abstraction; it is a positive and sustaining drive toward a greater purpose in life.
Dr. Pelletier suggests the following recommendations derived from his research on maintaining an altruistic orientation:
- Identify any cause that strikes you as important. It can be visiting an ill or disabled family member, developing a recycling program at your worksite, or tackling a major social problem.
- Devote time to being of service to a particular group of people, such as children, the disabled, or the elderly. Very often altruistic individuals find their greatest satisfaction in working with those who need help the most.
- Develop a self-care group for others who wish to work together on a common problem, such as alcoholism or childcare. Or share the enjoyment of a common interest like bird watching or hiking.
- Volunteer in your children’s or grandchildren’s school, local political campaigns, or groups for charitable organizations in any way that allows you to join together with like-minded individuals committed to a common cause.
- Join any group that has a devotion to something that has a greater purpose outside you. Research indicated that dedication to a greater purpose, as much as to other people, is what produces the greatest sense of fulfillment.
~You can have a better life~