Feelings of usefulness in older adults found to be a powerful predictor of future health benefits

In an ageing population sadly issues of loneliness and isolation are widespread as individuals can feel disconnected from the communities in which they live. Many studies have shown that being socially isolated can be detrimental to health; we humans are inherently social creatures.

The traditional view sees mental and physical health as unrelated. Research now shows that social and environmental factors that affect our mental well being can directly affect our physical health. Like the way stress can have physiological effects on the body, so too can loneliness and depression. This, in the extreme, can lead to very poor health outcomes especially in the more vulnerable in society.

But what about usefulness? How does a feeling of being useful relate to the health of older adults?

We can understand being useful as related to a feeling of importance, value and offering some service to others. It is vitally important to a general sense of well being and purpose in life.

A recent study was published in the Journal of Ageing and Health where researchers intended to ask the question of how being useful relates to physical health. They interviewed and investigated older adults over a span of 7 years and had some astounding findings.

They found that those who felt little or no usefulness to family, friends or community were “more likely to experience an increase in disability or to die over the 7-year period”. Conversely those who felt higher levels of usefulness to others were found to live longer and be generally healthier.

These findings, though shocking, do make some rational sense as we think of the challenges faced by older adults. Individuals that may once have had huge responsibility in work or family could now struggle to find a feeling of usefulness. Many older adults have the time, knowledge and motivation to be hugely useful across many fields. It is now our challenge to find ways to make the connections that benefit the health of many and the well being of all.

Article reference: Gruenewald, T., Karlamangla, A., Greendale, G., Singer, B., & Seeman, T. (2009). Increased mortality risk in older adults with persistently low or declining feelings of usefulness to others. Journal Of Aging & Health, 21(2), 398-425. doi:10.1177/0898264308329023

 

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