Want to live longer? Be a volunteer, not a gym bunny

Family, friends and community involvement are key to longevity, study on ageing finds

Active involvement with family, friends and the wider community, through volunteerism and participation, and building exercise into one’s routine, are the key ingredients of a long and happy life, research suggests.

A good social life and a circle of friends was as important as low cholesterol in combating heart disease, it found. For everyone approaching 50 years of age, the good news is that their quality of life can continue to improve for another 30 years.

We know that purpose is really important as people get older. Continue to have a purpose in life

Further, if you are living by the sea you are are less likely than others to suffer depression, and if you are by nature an optimist, longevity beckons.

These pointers to happy ageing emerge from the latest research analysis by Tilda, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing.


Rose Anne Kenny, professor of medical gerontology at Trinity College Dublin and principal investigator with Tilda, said the research showed longevity and happiness were closely aligned with a person having a sense of purpose to their life, having a sense of belonging (to a family, to friends or a community), and to exercise and relaxation.

“We know that purpose is really important as people get older,” she said. “Continue to have a purpose in life. The second is strong family connections. Exercise for part of your day – not going to the gym for an hour, driving there, driving home and that’s it. Make exercise part of your day – gardening, housework, walking everywhere to collect groceries.”


On diet, she quoted approvingly the Japanese maxim “each day, something from the sea and something from the land”, but returned to the need to feel connected.

"Part of that very much is volunteering," she said. "In Ireland, one in five people over the age of 50 volunteer on a regular basis and we know from the research that you are physically fitter, mentally fitter and much happier if you regularly belong to a community institution and are engaged with that activity."

She said Tilda research could be used by Government to improve the lives of everyone, not just the over-50s, and in inexpensive ways. She instanced a change to pedestrian crossing traffic lights.

"We found that almost 25 per cent of people over the age of 80 weren't able to walk fast enough to cross the road, gauging the time of road signals in the Dublin area," she said. "So we worked with Dublin City Council and were able to say to them if you can extend the timing of the lights by two seconds, x proportion of people over that age will be able to cross the road. And they did this and it has had a very positive knock-on effect at a societal level."

Countrywide seminars

Starting next month, the GAA is to launch countrywide seminars to engage with members and the wider community in the hope of improving health and wellbeing, especially among older people.

The aspiration is to make our clubs hubs for health within their communities

The first seminar will be on March 11th at 7pm in the Longford Arms Hotel and will include retired GAA commentator Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh.

According to Colin Regan, the GAA's community and health manager, what the association is calling the Healthy Club Project will involve at least 350 clubs by January 2020.

"The aspiration is to make our clubs hubs for health within their communities, that they become community clubs, rather than just sporting clubs," he said on Wednesday at the launch of the project at Croke Park in Dublin.

It is part of the GAA’s social initiative and was sparked by then-president Mary McAleese’s 2009 observations about the loneliness of many older people in rural areas. Mr Regan stressed that the association wanted to appeal to the community beyond its own members.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times