Giving Aid, Staying Alive: Elderly helpers have longevity advantage

The old saying that it’s better to give than to receive may be true, at least when it comes to social support. Over a 5-year period, seniors who provided either a lot of practical assistance to friends, relatives, and neighbors or regular emotional support to their spouses displayed a higher survival rate than those who didn’t provide such help, a new study finds.

LIFE SUPPORTS. New data suggest that older people who provide social support to spouses, friends, and others live longer than other seniors do.

In contrast, recipients of plentiful social support showed death rates similar to those of their peers who got little or no such support, say psychologist Stephanie L. Brown of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and her colleagues.

Nearly all previous attempts to link social contacts and physical health have focused only on whether individuals receive support from others. Results have been mixed.

“Giving support may be an important component of interpersonal relationships that has considerable value to health and well-being,” Brown’s group concludes in the July Psychological Science. It’s not yet known whether programs that teach ways to provide support to others would boost long-term survival rates, the researchers add.

The scientists examined data previously collected from 423 married couples living in and around Detroit. The couples were part of a larger prospective study of coping and grief reactions in the elderly.

Each husband was 65 years of age or older at the start of the study in 1987; most wives were slightly younger. Over the next 5 years, 134 individuals died.

Statistical analyses of various subgroups revealed a lower death rate, by as much as half, for participants who reported in initial surveys that they had been providing either of two types of social support. One type involved helping people other than one’s spouse with errands, housework, childcare, or other daily tasks. The other centered on listening to one’s spouse when he or she needed to talk and making that person feel loved and cared for.

The survival advantage for support givers remained when the researchers statistically controlled for individual differences in age, physical health, satisfaction with health, exercise, cigarette and alcohol use, mental health, and income. The findings also held after controlling for differences in extroversion, agreeableness, feeling vulnerable to stress, and other personality measures.

Still, the scientists note, more extensive research is needed to rule out the possibilities that the physically healthiest people most often provide social support and thus live longer or that an abundance of material resources fosters longevity and makes it easier to give aid to others.

Brown’s study offers a fresh way to think about social support, remarks psychologist Camille B. Wortman of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Wortman directs the larger project on coping among the elderly from which Brown and her coworkers drew their data.

“It’s worthwhile to raise the question of whether giving social support, rather than receiving it, results in health benefits among those undergoing stress,” Wortman says.


If you have a comment on this article that you would like considered for publication in Science News, send it to Please include your name and location.

To subscribe to Science News (print), go to

To sign up for the free weekly e-LETTER from Science News, go to

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.