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Breakthrough Longevity Survey Results Revealed

By Digital Journal Staff     Aug 22, 2001 in Lifestyle
SOUTHAMPTON, NEW YORK (SHC) - An eight month survey of more than 545 seniors between the ages of 80 and 100 living on Long Island sheds fascinating light on the attitudes and lifestyle choices that may explain why these people have lived such long and productive lives.
At a time when "longevity" has become the buzzword for the rapidly expanding life span in the new millennium, the survey sought to find out why men and women over 80 are leading active, vital lives. The 85-100 age group, the fastest growing segment of the population in the country, rose 274% in the U.S. between 1960 and 1994. In contrast, the entire population grew by 45% in the same period.
The recently completed survey, one of the first of its kind of this older age group, was sponsored by the Center for Creative Retirement (CCR), now in its twentieth year at Southampton College, Long Island University. The study was conducted by Clyde and Florence Matthews, CCR's founders and directors, and principal investigators of the project. Most studies of this nature have been on people in the 60-plus category and have dealt primarily with medical, health and genetic issues.
Deborah Anderson, Ph.D., a noted professor of gerontology and developmental psychology, was an active consultant on the survey. Dr. Anderson said, "The study is intended as a breakthrough in this virtually ignored and dynamically growing segment of our population - what many sociologists and institutes on aging call 'The Aging Revolution.' Centenarians alone have increased by almost 80% in the last decade." "Having identified 545 men and women living on Long Island who are leading active, fulfilling lives, this study focused on factors under their control - attitude, lifestyle, mental stimulation, social interaction, spirituality, and creativity - which contributed to their extended life span," according to the Matthews. Self-selected respondents volunteered to participate anonymously in the survey sample.
Attitude and Personality Among the findings in the answers to the 53 multiple choice questions were that 72% reported having a very strong feeling of independence with 24 % saying they had a moderate feeling of independence. Many gerontologists consider this an attitudinal factor, which they refer to as "internal focus of control of one's life."
Volunteerism Alive and Well Another purpose of the survey was to examine the validity of the widespread negative image that the over-80 population is frail, disengaged and dependent, when, in fact, there are millions of men and women over 80 throughout the country who are making major commitments of their time, energies and talents as volunteers serving needed functions at hospitals, cultural centers, libraries, community theatres, educational and charitable institutions and many other local organizations.
The survey's statistical evidence shows that 46% of all respondents do volunteer work on a weekly basis - 32% female and 14% male. The preponderance of women volunteers is readily understandable: it reflects the surviving numbers of women over men in the older age group, as well as the recognition that women tend to be the leading care-givers and nurturers. A similar disparity shows in the amount of time women and men devote to volunteer activities. Slightly under 38% of women do volunteer work less than six hours per week, compared to 18% of men; between six and twelve hours per week, 19% are women and 7% are men; between thirteen and twenty hours, 10% are women and 4% are men; and 20 plus hours per week, 3% are women and 2% are men. According to Clyde Matthews, "The bottom line is that this is an extraordinary contribution of time and effort for this senior age group. Extrapolated nationwide, this is a huge public service investment." These altruistic individuals report that they volunteer because it gives them a sense of purpose and they want to help the organizations they serve, as well as the public which benefits from their services.
Lifestyle Profile In checking off their leisure activities, (Circle all that apply): 78% indicated they engage in some type of physical activity: walking, 52%; physical fitness exercises, 30%; gardening, 28%; swimming, 20%; and golf, 11%. A negligible percentage of other sports-related activities were reported, such as yoga, jogging, tennis and Tai-Chi.
Non-physical activities (Circle all that apply): reading, 79% of which 11% is through book clubs; crossword puzzles and other word games, 49%; bridge and other card games, 34%; listening to music, 20%.
Creative activities that these seniors engage in included such media as painting (fine art), drawing, ceramics, sculpture, creative writing, wood carving, needlecraft and other forms of self-expression for a total of 25%. Many comments from those engaged in serious (over) commitments to lifelong creative endeavors pointed to this element as a life force in their longevity.
Spiritual beliefs, meditation, prayer and participation in churches, synagogues and other religious institutions were engaged in by 34% of respondents. The role of spirituality as a life-enhancing ingredient is confirmed by this high percentage.
Computers are owned by 22% of respondents. They are used for E-mail, 17%; word processing, 10%; stock market access, 5% ; record keeping, 5%; and research, 8%.
"Continued learning and education are an important part of my life" according to 48% of those who "strongly agree" and 34% of those who "moderately agree." Their specific involvements break down into: attending senior centers regularly for general education and socialization, 35%; attend lectures and symposia, 28%; pursue adult education at local schools and libraries, 17%; Elderhostels, 10%; Lifelong Learning programs at colleges and universities, 8%. (One or more of the above were checked off by the respondents.)
Regarding their health, 90% answered they were in relatively good health even though they have some physical problems. This is, of course, understandable in an age group where many have heart conditions, high blood pressure, arthritis or other non-disabling problems. Despite these chronic conditions, a substantial number manage to rise above their aches and pains and carry on activities they enjoy or which they feel help others. Those who are able to do this and draw satisfaction tend to improve their outlook and consequently their health. This is an attitudinal factor that may positively impact on their longevity.
Sex Among the Over Eighties In stating that "Sex is still an important part of my life," 17% of both genders are affirming that they are still sexually active in their eighties and beyond. Of this percentage, 5% are female and 12% are male. Although there are many more females than males in this group, 20% of males are currently married, but only 8% of females are married. However, these figures do not separate those seniors who are married from those who are unmarried. Some of the additional comments by respondents in this age group indicated their enthusiasm for this little acknowledged form of rejuvenation.
Accomplishments Reinforce Life Satisfactions An answer that indicated personal satisfaction with their lives was, "As I look back over my years, I feel I have accomplished my main goals in life;" 43% "strongly agree;" 49% "moderately agree." That comprises a substantial satisfaction of their life's accomplishments. "I still have goals I want to pursue," produced a response of 36% "strongly agree," while 43% "moderately agree," indicating a longevity factor through future goals.
The statement, "I am presently involved in an ongoing project which fascinates me and energizes my life" elicited a proportionate response of 43% from the 80 to 84 year-old respondents and 29% from those 85 to 89. From those between 90 and 100, the answer was an unequivocal "No." Among the projects described were: writing and producing plays; travelling around the country giving lectures and showing tapes on the early days of communications, windsurfing, flying their own airplane to travel destinations, creating and exhibiting their own art work, entertaining before children's groups and at nursing homes, restoring classic boats for a marine museum, writing a travel column for a weekly newspaper, racing sailboats, and learning a new language. While some of these projects may require special abilities, they do suggest a range of possibilities that these individuals believe contributed to their life span. A substantial number emphasized that their close involvement in the lives of their grandchildren energized their will to live.
In response to the final statement, "I want to be able to reach age 100 and beyond," 31% "strongly agree;" 14% "moderately agree;" for a life-affirming total of 45%. The U.S. Census Bureau projects more than a doubling of centenarians between the years 2000 and 2010.
In summary, Matthews said," It is hoped that the data revealed in this study may help belie the widely held myth that the elderly, as a group, are non-productive, non-contributing folks who live in the shadows of society. In fact, the data shows that the large percentage of older Americans are living full and stimulating lives and contributing much vitality and talent to the rest of society while expanding their own added years."
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