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Rx for Optimal Aging

By Laura Wexler

"Is bingo more important than exercise in making older people survive longer?" That was the question posed by one British reporter after Tom Glass' article about promoting good health among the elderly appeared in the summer 1999 British Medical Journal. Glass had found that social and productive activities appear to lower the risk of mortality among elderly Americans as much as fitness activities do. His findings captured the attention of the media; Glass did 65 press interviews in two weeks.

Glass, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and one of the core faculty at the Center on Aging and Health, chuckles good-naturedly at the over-simplification of his 13-year study. "I find the questions about whether older people should stop exercising very puzzling," he says. "What we're saying is not that social and productive activities are more important than exercise. It's that they, along with exercise, have an important role to play in longevity." 

For too long, Glass says, researchers have assumed the key to better health for older people was physical activity; that assumption, in turn, has led to substantial investment in exercise programs for the elderly. But Glass' research shows that activities in which older people play meaningful social roles appear to offer as much advantage to survival as physical activity. His study of nearly 3,000 people age 65 and older in New Haven, Connecticut, showed that social activities (attending church, traveling, playing cards) and productive activities (like gardening, cooking, and doing volunteer work) lowered depression and disability levels, and increased longevity. And, he notes, such activities were strongly associated with survival even in those who were physically inactive. "It's so clear that a great deal of misery, illness, and dysfunction in older people is the result of atrophy—not just physical, but mental and emotional," he says. "Therefore, a prescription for successful aging should include not just physical activity, but also social and productive activity." 

Given that life expectancy is increasing—by the year 2050, the number of Americans age 90 and older is expected to grow from the present 1 million to 10 million—an increasing number of people will be living one-third of their lives after retirement. Glass is concerned with finding ways to help people feel their post-retirement lives are meaningful. He says Experience Corps, a three-year-old program run by Hopkins' Center on Aging and Health that places older people in urban schools as tutors and mentors, offers one model worth replicating. Members of the "corps" have reported feeling stronger, more energetic, and healthier as a result of their volunteer work. 

"The amount of energy it takes to work with elementary school kids is akin to a Tae-Bo workout," says Glass, who co-directs Experience Corps with Linda Fried, MD, MPH '85, a professor of Medicine with joint appointments in Epidemiology and Health Policy. "But it's not just exercise. It's doing something productive."

Glass, PhD, MS, hopes his study's results, and the success of programs like Experience Corps, will force Americans to re-envision life after retirement. "This idea that post-retirement life should be a vacation is not the right model," says Glass. "I would love to see the day when a geriatrician writes a prescription for volunteering."