May 19, 2009

Generous spirit may yield generous life span

By Marilyn Elias, USA TODAY
Older adults who live by the adage "it's more blessed to give than to receive" enjoy longer life spans than people still focused on "gimme" in later years, suggests a pioneering new study.
It's the first one to compare how giving and receiving in daily life affect longevity, and researchers say the findings are surprising.

Scientists have long known that social contact improves health and promotes longer life. "But it's always been assumed that the benefit comes from support people get. This turns that assumption upside down. It's path-breaking because it suggests giving day-to-day help can protect the helper's health," says UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, an expert on stress and health.

The study followed 423 couples for five years. All of the men were at least 65 years old. At the start, participants were asked if they'd given or received emotional or practical help in the past year. Five years later, those who said they'd helped others were half as likely to have died, says University of Michigan psychologist Stephanie Brown. Her study will appear in Psychological Science next year.

To make sure that "givers" weren't healthier at the outset, researchers took into account their physical and emotional health. They also adjusted for age and gender, smoking, drinking and exercise habits, and personality qualities linked to longevity. There was still a strong tie between giving and staying alive, Brown says. But receiving did not prolong life.

The human race couldn't have survived without giving, says Brown, so people may have evolved to live longer if they help others.

Women's longer life spans may be partly due to the fact they have more social contact — giving and receiving — than men, says Taylor, author of the recent book The Tending Instinct (Henry Holt and Co.). Her research uncovered a "tend and befriend" impulse prompting women under stress to seek out companions. Men are less likely to do this because their testosterone appears to blunt the effect of oxytocin, a calming hormone that promotes social bonds.

The new findings on longevity "should be taken with a grain of salt," adds Taylor, because there's evidence that too much giving, such as done by caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, can weaken the immune system and impair health. "That's probably not what we're talking about here. It's a more ordinary kind of giving at modest levels," she says.

"Helper's high" is the term coined by Arizona State University psychologist Robert Cialdini to describe the euphoria reported by frequent givers in his research. These good feelings may lower the output of stress hormones, which improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system.

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