To most people who have known seniors this statement is a no-brainer: Seniors who enjoy life live longer. Many scientists agree. The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, or ELSA conducted by University College, London recently reported exactly these findings. The study followed more than 10,000 seniors, checking on them periodically, and found that a reported enjoyment of life meant the person having fun was more likely still to be alive nine or ten years later, than those who were not actively enjoying life.
The report also noted that measurements of psychological well-being could be used to predict quite accurately which of the seniors would likely be suffering poor health in the future. Reduced enjoyment of life correlates closely with social isolation. The study found that as many as one in six people over 50 in the UK can be considered socially isolated. This has serious consequences as a 2009 United Nations Development Programme study found. Humans are not meant to live in isolation which causes multiple negative effects on the body including heightened stress, higher blood pressure, reduced immunity and disturbed sleep. It is not an exaggeration to say that loneliness is a very serious health problem. It is also an extremely costly problem, which without intervention will only get worse as the number of seniors in the world increases. The UN predicts that by 2050, one in five people will be over 60.
Japan currently has the highest percentage of seniors, and the current life expectancy is around 84 years. Furthermore, Japan is seriously strapped for cash. The approach they are taking could be a model for other countries to follow. The plan is simple: promote social interaction. Suginami ward inTokyo has initiated a system of award points for seniors who participate in approved activities. These can be cultural events, attending health events or taking part in sports. Even picking up litter is rewarded with a sticker.The stickers can be exchanged for grocery coupons. Even with an $8,000,000 price tag, this is great programme.
For many years the Japanese have participated in group exercise in parks and open spaces or at home following instructions broadcast on the radio. Stretching and breathing exercises may be followed by a walk or a game of petanque or croquet. The benefits of this mild exercise are more than matched by the opportunity to socialize and become part of a group. As one 86-year old widow puts it “I’m having so much fun”. She goes on to say that even though she lives alone, she is never lonely as the others in the group all look out for her.
This approach by the always practical Japanese tackles the problems of aging head-on. Keeping seniors engaged with social groups keeps them happier and therefore healthier; healthier seniors are less of a burden on the state, and giving them financial incentives to be active helps them get by on fixed incomes. It’s a win-win situation.