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People who give, live longer, ISR study shows

For older adults, it really is better to give than to receive, a U-M study suggests. The study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, finds that older people who are helpful to others reduce their risk of dying by nearly 60 percent compared to peers who provide neither practical help nor emotional support to relatives, neighbors or friends.

"Making a contribution to the lives of other people may help to extend our own lives," says the paper's lead author, Stephanie Brown, a psychologist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

For the study, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, Brown analyzed data on 423 older couples, part of the ISR Changing Lives of Older Couples Study. That study was a random community-based sample of people who were first interviewed in 1987 then followed for five years to see how they coped with the inevitable changes of later life.

During 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. Finally, they were asked about giving emotional support to or receiving it from their spouses, including being willing to listen if the spouse needed to talk.

Over the five-year period of the study, 134 people died. In her analysis of the link between giving and receiving help and mortality, Brown controlled for a variety of factors, including age, gender, and physical and emotional health. "I wanted to rule out the possibilities that older people give less and are more likely to die, that females give more and are less likely to die, and that people who are depressed or in poor health are both less likely to be able to help others and more likely to die," Brown says.

She found that people who reported providing no help to others were more than twice as likely to die as people who gave some help to others. Overall, Brown found that 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. "If giving, rather than receiving, promotes longevity, then interventions that are designed to help people feel supported may need to be redesigned so the emphasis is on what people can do to help others," Brown says. "In other words, these findings suggest that it isn't what we get from relationships that makes contact with others so beneficial; it's what we give."

The results, she notes, are consistent with the possibility that the benefits of social contact are shaped, in part, by the evolutionary advantages of helping others. "Older adults may still be able to increase their fitness (defined as the reproductive success of individuals who share their genes) by becoming motivated to stay alive and prolonging the amount of time they can contribute to family members," she notes. "Of course, this possibility relies on the assumption that a motivation for self-preservation can influence mortality. And in fact, there is evidence to suggest that individuals with a 'fighting spirit' survive longer with cancer than individuals who feel helpless or less optimistic about their chances for survival. Now it seems that the same may be true of a 'giving spirit.'"


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