More doctors are opting for what is known as “social prescribing,” encouraging their older patients to participate in social and recreational activities. The reason? Social interactions keep people connected and engaged, which boosts mood and improves overall health, Mabel Ho, lead author of a new study looking at the effects of social activity on successful aging, told TheDoctor.

When Ho and her team analyzed data from more than 7,600 participants in the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, they found that participants in recreational activities such as book clubs or volunteer work were more likely to age successfully than those who did not.

“It is encouraging there are ways to support our physical, cognitive, mental and emotional well-being as we age,” Esme Fuller-Thomson, the senior author on the study, said. It is important for older adults, families, healthcare providers, policymakers and researchers to work together to create an environment that supports healthy aging, she added.

Social interactions keep people connected and engaged, which boosts mood and improves overall health.

Aging successfully was defined in this study as having no limitations to completing activities of daily living, no mental illness during the previous year, no serious cognitive decline and no chronic pain that restricts activity. All the study participants, 60 years old and older at the start, met these criteria for successful aging.

The participants also believed they were aging successfully at the start of the study. They reported adequate social support, high levels of happiness and good physical and mental health. They participated in church or synagogue events, educational or cultural activities, service clubs or fraternal organizations, neighborhood or professional organizations and recreational activities. Many also did volunteer or charity work.

At the end of the three-year follow-up period, 72 percent of those who said they continued to participate in recreational activities or do volunteer or charity work at baseline were still aging successfully. Of those who did not continue to participate in recreational activities or volunteer work, 66 percent continued to age successfully. The study was not designed to determine why some participants withdrew from their social lives, but health may have been a factor.

Recreational activities were associated with a 15 percent greater likelihood of successful aging and volunteer work was associated with a 17 percent likelihood of aging successfully. As Ho, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto faculty of social work, pointed out, “If you volunteer, for example, you are not only helping others, you are also helping yourself!”

As more data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging become available, the team wants to look for other factors associated with successful aging. Fuller-Thomson, a professor at the University of Toronto faculty of social work, told TheDoctor that they also have an ongoing study examining the possible effects of changes in marital status, such as becoming widowed or getting divorced, on health and long-term optimal aging.

In the future, research might also consider ways to help people who are not aging so well reconnect socially.

The study is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.