The elderly, helping, altruism and health

by Feb 10, 2013Altruism0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 2 minutes
This week once again issues of how to care for the elderly have hit the headlines with government announcements about how future care is likely to be funded. It is interesting that the primary focus in most media reports tends to be about ‘cost’ of such care, and there is a constant message about the ‘burden’ of the elderly. We know of course that the proportion of elderly people living alone has been increasing in recent years in the UK and US. We also know that living alone hugely increases the chances of suffering from depression. Research has also shown, over many years, that increased longevity and better health go with elderly people having higher levels of social contact, and in particular belonging to more clubs and organizations, for example people who are more embedded in social groups living longer after strokes and heart attacks. The elderly do better and are healthier if they are well integrated into communities.

What all of this so often leaves out is the terrible waste of potential contributions that can made by many of the elderly to others. One interesting study that came out in the last few weeks showed that people who were over 70 and had spent more time helping others in fact had better health and tended to live longer  ( click for link to study ). The mediating factor, as in many of these studies, was stress, and what seems to happen is that those who give to others in fact derive health benefits from such giving and helping, via the reduction in stress levels. Other studies have shown similar results in the last few years ( eg  click here ), and it seems that one of the results of giving to others is increased levels of oxytocin, again associated with better immune functioning. Of course this might not be the case with the very elderly and the extremely infirm, but even if this is not a very original thought, it often strikes me that so many elderly people with so much to give have their potential stymied, which is bad for them and bad for us.

There are of course a lot of lessons for society as a whole from such research. We know that people of all ages feel better, healthier and happier when they have the opportunity to be helpful, altruistic and charitable, all kinds of areas of the brain to do with reward fire up, and health chemicals swish around our systems, when giving to charity,  and people’s health improves. This is win-win, albeit a different kind of winner to the ‘winner takes all’ of more competitive market led ways of structuring the social world.

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