Spring is in the air in most parts of the country, and that weather is inviting us all to get outside and enjoy some fresh air! Golf enthusiasts might be particularly eager to hit the links now that temperatures are climbing and the grass is turning green.
And there’s more good news for golfers. Preliminary research presented at the American Stroke Association’s 2020 International Stroke Conference suggests that playing golf at least once a month may lower older adults’ risk of premature death.
The growing popularity of golf
According to data from the National Golf Foundation (NGF), 34.2 million people (age 6 and up) in the U.S. played golf in 2019. This includes people playing on traditional golf courses as well as those going to the driving range or hitting one of the wildly popular indoor golf simulators or golf entertainment venues like Topgolf.
Golf is one of the most popular sports among older Americans, with 5.3 million people age 65 and over playing in 2019. The NGF projects that that number will steadily climb as the Baby Boomers continue to reach retirement age. Interestingly, based on NGF data, the average golfer played 18.2 rounds in 2019, however, the average senior golfer played twice as much: 36 rounds.
Considered a “lifelong sport,” playing golf is a great way for seniors to get or remain active. The intensity level and social nature of the sport is such that people can continue to play and enjoy it well into their senior years, even after suffering certain medical events like a heart attack or stroke. And this fact may contribute to the potential health benefits of golfing.
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A lower risk of early death?
Researchers from the Zeenat Qureshi Stroke Institute and the University of Missouri looked at data collected from the Cardiovascular Health Study, a population-based observational study of risk factors for heart disease and stroke in adults age 65 and older.
For 10 years, from 1989 to 1999, Cardiovascular Health Study participants had extensive clinical exams each year as well as clinic visits every six months. After that 10-year period, participants were regularly contacted by phone to record if they had suffered any heart attack or stroke events.
Participants in the Cardiovascular Health Study who played golf at least once a month were considered regular golfers. Of the 5,900 study participants, who had an average age of 72, researchers identified 384 golfers. During those follow-up calls, 8.1 percent of the golfers had experienced a stroke, and 9.8 percent of the golfers had suffered a heart attack. These numbers were not statistically different for non-golfers.
However, there was a notable difference in the study between golfers and non-golfers when it came to death rates. The researchers found that the golfers in the study had a significantly lower rate of death when compared to non-golfers: 15.1 percent compared to 24.6 percent, respectively. Put another way, the golfers had a more than 8 percent lower death rate from all causes than did the non-golfers.
The overall findings of the data analysis by Zeenat Qureshi Stroke Institute and the University of Missouri suggest that playing golf may not reduce the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. However, golf may be a protective factor against the risk of early death.
Golfing for your health
So, what is it about golf that might help seniors live longer? Researchers aren’t certain, but they think there are several potential contributing factors.
Golf is a low-impact sport (as compared to high-impact activities like football or jogging), so it is considered suitable even for older people who may have some minor joint or mobility issues. It does give players a degree of physical activity, especially for those who walk the course instead of taking a cart. Other studies consistently show that any type of physical activity is tied to a reduced risk of death.
A round of golf also gets players outside into nature, the fresh air, and the sunshine. That time outdoors has an array of health benefits from better brain function, improved sleep, and reduced stress to quicker healing and a healthier immune system (thanks to that dose of vitamin D provided by the sun).
Added benefits of hitting the links
But researchers suspect there may be something beyond the physical activity and time outdoors that sets golf apart when it comes to potentially prolonging life: the psychological aspects of the game.
First, golf is a fun and relaxed game, but there is a competitive element to it as well. It can be quite exciting and also requires mental focus. All of these aspects of the game might benefit seniors’ long-term health.
In addition to being a lifelong sport, golf also is renowned as a “social sport.” Not only do you typically play a round with one to three other people, you also have plenty of time to enjoy conversation and camaraderie. Eighteen holes of golf with four people takes roughly four hours, so that’s some good together time for socializing! And given that loneliness and social isolation are associated with a 23 percent increase in risk of death, this social aspect of golf may be one of its “protective factors.”
Dr. Adnan Qureshi, who is a neurology professor at the University of Missouri and was the lead researcher of the golf study, sums it up well:
“While walking and low intensity jogging may be comparable exercise, they lack the competitive excitement of golf. Regular exercise, exposure to a less polluted environment and social interactions provided by golf are all positive for health. Another positive is that older adults can continue to play golf, unlike other more strenuous sports such as football, boxing, and tennis. Additional positive aspects are stress relief and relaxation, which golf appears better suited for than other sports.”
Teeing up better health for seniors
Golf, as well as other low-impact, social sports like bocce ball and pickleball, are growing in popularity in many age groups, including among seniors. The research by Dr. Qureshi and his colleagues suggests that seniors may enjoy an array of mental and physical health benefits from participation in these activities, and it may even prolong their lives.
Senior living communities, such as continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs, or life plan communities), recognize the benefits of these social sports as well and are making changes to accommodate and encourage such activities among residents.
I’m always excited to see how CCRCs are expanding their various wellness spaces so they can accommodate the increasing number of people who sign up and are eager to participate. In fact, it is becoming much more the norm as today’s seniors expect to have convenient access to an array of exercise options.
From installing putting greens or golf simulator machines to creating bocce ball or pickleball courts, CCRCs and other senior living communities strive to facilitate healthier, more active lifestyles among seniors, which can help keep their residents healthier for longer.
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