People who belong to social groups such as book clubs or church groups after they retire may live longer, a new study suggests.
In fact, the benefits that belonging to social groups after retirement has for longevity are comparable to those of regular exercise after retirement, the researchers said.
"If you are in the process of retiring and don't belong to any group, join one," said study author Niklas Steffens, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia. "If you belong to only one or two groups, you might want to think about how to make the most of these and what other groups you may want to join."
In the study, the researchers looked at 424 people in England, ages 50 and older, who were about to retire. They asked the people how many organizations, clubs or societies they belonged to, and also asked them about their overall quality of life and physical health.
The researchers then followed these people for the next six years, and looked at whether the people continued their memberships of social organizations during this time. They also tracked which participants died.
It turned out that 28 of the people in the study died within six years after retiring, and that the strongest predictor of death during the study was a person's age: At age 55, the average risk of death among the people in the study was 1 percent, compared with an 8 percent risk of death at age 65. [Extending Life: 7 Ways to Live Past 100]
But the number of social group memberships that the people maintained after retiring was also a significant predictor of death within the same period of time, according to the study, published Feb. 15 in the journal BMJ Open.
For example, if a person was a member of two social groups before they retired, and maintained these memberships over the next six years, their risk of dying during the study period was 2 percent. However, the risk increased to 5 percent if they gave up the membership of one of the groups, and increased to 12 percent if they gave up both memberships.
Similarly, if a person exercised vigorously once a week before they retired, and maintained this frequency after they retired, their risk of dying over the next six years was 3 percent. However, the risk increased to 6 percent if they reduced the frequency of exercising to less than once a week, and to 11 percent if they stopped exercising altogether.
"People invest a lot of energy and effort into planning their finances, medical care and physical exercise as they look ahead to retirement," Steffens told Live Science. "Our research shows that 'social planning' — that is, planning to maintain or develop new social group memberships — may be equally important in promoting health and well-being in retirement."
The researchers noted that the people's physical health at the start of the study, based on their own subjective assessment, was not a significant predictor of death within six years after the people retired.
The new research shows that it really doesn't matter what kind of social group a retired person belongs to, whether it is a church group or a group of people who meet to play cards, as long as it is "an organized, scheduled activity," said Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein, director of geriatric education at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, who was not involved in the new study.
However, it is important that people actively participate in social activities on a scheduled, regular basis. Merely belonging to a gym or a social group, without participating regularly, will not benefit their health, Wolf-Klein added.
The researchers said they don't know for sure why belonging to social groups after retiring appears to be linked to a longer life. However, previous research has shown that belonging to social groups helps people form a sense of identity, and this sense of identity may be critical for people's health, Steffens said.