Do Socially Engaged People Live Longer?

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Michael Burgess

Today is Senior Citizens Day here it New York.  Exemplary seniors active in their communities from every county were honored in Albany.   I have also been thinking a lot recently about Rev. Daniel Berrrigan,  who died recently at age 94. Berrigan was a confrontational Catholic priest who fought for peace and justice, burning selective service records and raiding military facilities in his protests against the Vietnam War.  Do people like him and others who are so publicly engaged and interested in public affairs live longer?

Pete Seeger also lived to 94 and my old friend, Rose Kryzak, the great senior activist here in New York, died four months short of her 100th birthday.   She was still concerned about senior issues and I remember her telling me in her last days she wanted to make sure some petitions were circulated!  And then, we remember Walter Cronkite, Daniel Schorr, Andy Rooney and Mike Wallace who all lived into the 90s.  There were all newspeople curious and interested in the news and public affairs of the world.

Of course, you could never say that being an activist  or a person interested in the news or public affairs means you will live longer.  There are many activists who died at younger ages.   What we do know is that if a person has good genes and can get through to older age without cancer, heart disease or Alzheimers, then he or she has a chance to live to a very old age.   Of course there are many other factors such as 1) being a non smoker, 2) eating a good diet, 3) getting some exercise, 4) having  good bank account to afford good care,  5) being married or having close relationships and 6) having low levels of stress.

7) Of course, advances in health care and better medicines are also a part of this.  Getting cancer and heart screenings, flu and pneumonia shots are also important.  Some of the medicines we have now can control heart disease much better and others can improve chronic conditions.

8) There have been some studies done that also show that some communities of people in certain parts of the world who live a certain lifestyle or eat a certain diet live a long life.

9) Religion can also play a part.  Many nuns living in community also seem to live longer lives. Yes, one’s happiness and beliefs are also a big part of a longer life.

10)  Number ten is enthusiasm for life.  I think it may be among the most important and answer the question I started with about Father Berrigan and the other activists.  I think the older people I have mentioned might all have had good genes to go with a number of the other factors I have cited.   I think their enthusiasm and curiosity about life and affairs of the world are very significant factors in their long lives.  I think it is quite likely that  being enthusiastic, being publicly active and engaged  in social action or being a volunteer is certainly good medicine that can extend your life even further if your genes give you a chance to live to an older age.

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I have been a senior advocate for most of my career. I was Executive Director of the New York StateWide Senior Action Council and the New York State Alliance for Retired Americans. In 2007-2010 I was the Director of the New York State Office for the Aging

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