Successful aging: Keeping socially active, not just active, key to well-being

November 23, 1999

All of us have heard of people in their 80s or 90s who, in spite of advancing age, continue to live rich and fulfilling lives. And many of us know people in their 50s and 60s who do not. Some researchers believe that keeping busy is key to maintaining health and well-being into old age. But a researcher at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has found that the reason for participating in an activity may be as important as the activity itself. In fact, activities that just pass the time may have a negative effect.

Reporting in the September 1999 issue of The Journal of Applied Gerontology, Kelly M. Everard, Ph.D., an instructor in the university's Health Care Services Program, says that activity research often implies that older adults should keep busy while placing little emphasis on the reasons for participating in activities.

In a study of 249 community-dwelling older adults -- about equally divided between women and men -- Everard found that the reasons people engage in activities have a direct bearing on their well-being. "I wanted to capture information on why people were doing what they were doing, and it was interesting to discover that those who were engaged in activities for social reasons were better off than those who did things just to pass the time," Everard said.

She conducted the study for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Kentucky. Subjects were randomly selected from that university's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, a pool of older adult volunteers. This research was supported by a predoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Satisfaction vs. frequency

Prior literature had shown that the more older people kept busy, the better off they tended to be. The frequency of a given activity was the important measurement. So, when gardeners did not feel they were doing well, older research might have suggested that they needed to garden more. But Everard did not find that.

"Gardening was a very striking example," she said. "Most people did some gardening, but they did it for different reasons. One person just loved it and looked forward to it every year. Another said that gardening was necessary to keep the yard from looking bad. That person didn't like to do it but felt he had to do it."

In addition to gardening, study participants also listed exercise, family visits, going to church, camping, playing music, reading and visiting the cemetery as activities in which they engaged, with the social activities tending to bring the most benefit. When an activity helped a person feel more connected socially, it tending to enhance well-being.

Everard did not correlate the subjects' self-reported ratings of well-being against actual physical data. But past studies consistently have shown that a personal rating of well-being is a very accurate measure of a person's mental and physical health.

"I wanted to know how people thought they were doing," she explained. "Other research has shown that when people rate their health for you, they give you a pretty good indication. Even when you look at physiologic measures ‹ even future mortality ‹ people who are doing well tend to report that their health is excellent, and usually it is."

The people most likely to report they were doing well were those who engaged in activities for social reasons. Those who said they did things simply to pass the time did not rate their well-being as high. Others who had problems included those whose activities were limited by medical conditions. People who had been sick or injured in the 12 months prior to the study and whose injury had made it difficult for them to participate in preferred activities tended to rate themselves as less well than those who had not been injured or sick. Also, the study found no relationship between well-being and total number of activities.

The myth

While being able to participate in enjoyable activities was very important to well-being, Everard says the word "enjoyable" is key. She believes her findings challenge what she calls the "myth" that the key to successful aging is keeping busy.

"We have this work ethic in our society, and some researchers have felt that being busy, working hard and working a lot are valuable and that keeping busy is something we should strive to do as we get older," she said. "Previous literature had shown that the more people did, the better off they were, but this study suggests that the frequency of activity doesn't tell the whole story."

The importance of enjoyment also may extend to other older adults. Although the people surveyed in this study still lived independently, Everard said that institutionalized adults and those in adult daycare also might do better if they engage in activities that they enjoy.

"It's a pretty big jump between the two populations of older adults, but activity planners in nursing homes and adult daycare centers need to think about what they are having people do," Everard said. "If they can find things that residents want to do and learn what's important to the people they're working with, various activities might be beneficial. But that's another study."
Note: For more information, refer to Everard, KM, "The Relationship Between Reasons for Activity and Older Adult Well-Being," The Journal of Applied Gerontology, vol. 18(3) pp. 325-340, September 1999.

Washington University in St. Louis

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