If you shovel the snow from your neighbor's sidewalk this winter, you may be doing yourself the bigger favor, according to a study in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, which suggests that giving support and assistance may be a better predictor of living longer than receiving it.
Researchers at the University of Michigan investigated whether providing social support was beneficial to the provider as well as the recipient. So, Stephanie Brown, PhD, of the university's Institute for Social Research, and colleagues followed 423 older couples over a five-year period, as part of larger community-based project studying the changing lives of older couples.
They found that people who reported providing no instrumental or emotional support to others were more than twice as likely to die in the five years as people who helped spouses, friends, relatives and neighbors. Also, the researchers note, giving to a spouse and giving to friends and neighbors were both independently linked with a lower chance of dying.
Support provided to friends, family and neighbors included transportation, errands, shopping, housework, child care or other tasks; support given to spouses included being available to talk or to make their spouses feel loved.
Despite concerns that the longevity effects might be due to healthier individuals' greater ability to help out, the results stood even after the researchers controlled for such factors as functional health, health satisfaction, health behaviors, mental health, age, income and education level. And while several measures of the support participants receive from others revealed no association with reduced mortality, all four of the giving measures, such as providing transportation or errands, significantly predicted a reduced risk of mortality.
"This may be the first study to compare giving and receiving with mortality as an outcome," Brown says, "so future research is needed to replicate and extend these findings." It still remains to be seen if giving support is truly the cause of better health, and if it relates to better health.
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