A study of over-75 year olds, conducted over nearly 2 decades has shown a positive link between sociability, physical activity and longevity.
The research, conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, followed 1800 individuals for 18 years and is the first to provide information over such a long timescale for the effect on longevity of factors such as physical exercise, social networks, bodyweight, smoking and alcohol consumption.
The results, published recently in the British Medical Journal, showed that those with low risk factors (a healthy lifestyle and moderate to good social lives) could expect to live 6 years longer for men and 5 years longer for women when compared to those with high risk factors (unhealthy lifestyles and poor social lives).
The strongest individual factor was physical exercise, with those who were more active living 2 years longer on average than those who were more sedentary. Those with stronger social connections, including contact with friends and relatives that the participants reported to be satisfactory, lived over one and a half years longer than those with unsatisfactory or low levels of social contact.
Smokers in the study died a year earlier on average than non-smokers, but those who had previously smoked and given up between the ages of 40 and 60 showed similar results to non-smokers, suggesting that quitting smoking in middle age can increase longevity. As 83% of former smokers quit between these times, it was not clear what the effect of quitting at a younger or older age, though the trends were similar. In addition, those who had quit smoking but died before the age of 75 were not followed in the study, which may have led to a bias in the results.
The study also found that over-85 year olds with low risk factors lived an average of 4 years longer than those with high risk factors, suggesting that the effects on longevity continue, though reduced, for the “oldest old”. Suffers of chronic illnesses with low risk factors also experienced 4 years longer life on average than chronic illness sufferers with high risk factors.
Future work may cover the crucial issue of whether the additional years of life were spent in good or bad health, as few more years lived in poor health may not be desirable for some people.
This research will allow us to tailor public health initiatives for older members of society and increases our knowledge of the effect of lifestyle changes in middle to old age has on longevity.