News & Views

Altaf Patel, Pune Mirror

Studies suggest that volunteering your time improves not only the quality of life, but also longevity

What really constitutes a healthy lifestyle? A discussion of this could be voluminous. I think in general, the six pillars of health are — a reasonable amount of exercise, smoking cessation, avoiding alcohol abuse, a healthy diet, freedom from stress and a healthy and fulfilling sexual life.

Building on the foundation, these elements of ahealthy lifestyle have a direct impact on longevity. But, a long life does not necessarily mean a good life. Isn't an enjoyment of life as important — not solely the years in your life but the life in your years? One efficacious mantra for a healthy lifestyle is — all things in moderation.

I was recently impressed by a study in the journal, Neurology, where the authors posed an important question. While many previous studies have been undertaken to establish individually, the correlation between factors such as diet, alcohol consumption, smoking, physical activity and excess weight with the increased risk of stroke, very few have addressed a combination of these for the prevention of stroke in women.

Their results showed that the risk of stroke was reduced by 9 per cent for physically active women and up to 17 per cent for women who'd never smoked, by implementing a few lifestyle changes. The study analysed 31,695 women. I am confident that if several other such studies were conducted, they would find similar results for males and females.

The dilemma that a strict adherence to a healthy lifestyle raises is whether man is body alone or body and soul? What else affects "lifestyle"? Does mental satisfaction in the form of service to our fellow men help in any way? A vast majority of senior citizens engage in productive activities. Productive activities may be defined as paid or unpaid actions that make a constructive contribution to human life. Many authorities consider these essential to a sense of well being in later life. Research regarding such productive activities tells us that they can enhance mental and physical health and reduce the risk of death.

I was also impressed by a paper in Gerontologist, a journal that focuses on human ageing, which evaluated the effects of such productive activities. A paper by Tavares et al in 2013 documented that productive activities lower the risk of high blood pressure in American adults. Similar studies on older Finnish adults tell us that such activities reduce the risk of being institutionalised in later life and of death as well.

The message which emerges is that belonging to a group, with common and participatory activities and interests, as well as the opportunity to fulfil a beneficial social role, has a positive input on physical health. The study in question examines the C-reactive protein (CRP) as an inflammatory marker. This marker is linked closely to the risks of heart attack, stroke and death.

The findings published by Tavares et al must be one of the fewer deep analyses that addresses the compelling issue of ageing well. It compares death with productive community activity and CRP, the surrogate marker for a healthier life. Such activities can accommodate a range of experiences and hobbies — it could be volunteering, employment, attending meetings, care giving or anything that imparts purpose and momentum to the daily routine.

The frequency of volunteering showed the most robust association with a fall of markers of inflammation, the CRP in this instance. Various other papers also address the issue of volunteers' work and document that volunteering is associated with better health possibly through emotional gratification and increased social integration.

Though the population studied in this study were 58 years of age and above, the most beneficial effect on CRP was seen in subjects 70 years or older, particularly those who volunteer frequently. This was surprising because there is data to suggest CRP increases with age.

So, in essence, for the many of us who take great care of our physical health by a healthy lifestyle and diet, the message is — invest a little time in productive activities like volunteering — whether it is community work or reading to the blind or other social work. This will go a long way in giving you a better physical health.