April 7, 2011 -- Regular trips to the store may help people live longer, even if they don't buy anything, according to researchers in Taiwan.
So does this mean "retail therapy" could be classed as an actual therapy for healthy aging? Other factors also come into play, one expert on aging tells WebMD.
The researchers in Taiwan say physical activity alongside social and economic activity are already recognized as being vital for healthy aging, but they say few studies have looked for a link between shopping and long-term survival.
Researchers in the U.K. looked at retail therapy in 2004 and concluded that rather than being a therapy in itself, shopping was a distraction from problems.
Researchers for the current study looked at 1,841 people aged 65 or over in Taiwan who lived independently at home. They were asked how often they went shopping. Possible answers ranged from "every day" to "never."
The answers were studied along with mental and physical capacities, age, gender, education, ethnicity, financial and employment status, lifestyle factors, and any long-term medical conditions. The study shows:
48% never shopped or shopped less than once per week.
22% shopped between two and four times a week.
17% shopped every day.
The rest shopped once a week.
Sixty-two percent of the participants were younger than 75. Fifty-four percent were men, and 76% were financially self-sufficient.
Sixty percent had up to two long-term medical conditions.
Younger participants were more likely to shop more often. Contrary to the stereotype of the grumpy old man not wanting to be dragged to the store, men shopped more often than women did.
People who shopped more tended to be smokers and alcohol drinkers, but had better physical and mental health. They also took regular exercise and had a network of friends to have meals with.
When other factors were taken into account, daily shoppers were 27% less likely to die, with the men amongst them 28% less likely to die, compared with 23% of women.
What Does It Mean?
The authors admit that shopping could be linked to better health in the first place -- going to the store more often to stock up on fresh, healthy food, for example.
Visiting stores didn't need to end up with a new pair of shoes or another purchase. It could be more about a nice stroll with friends.
Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health online, the authors say: "Shopping captures several dimensions of personal wellbeing, health and security, as well as contributing to the community's cohesiveness and economy, and may represent or actually confer increased longevity."
One of the authors, Mark Wahlqvist, MD, PhD, visiting professor at the National Health Research Institutes in Taiwan, tells WebMD by email, "It is of particular interest in that it provides apparent benefit for the less socio-economically advantaged (the poorer) and for men."
Compared to the West, he says there's a cultural difference, "which encourages both purposeful and recreational shopping -- along with the traditional Chinese love of buying and selling."
Tom Kirkwood, PhD, the director of the Institute for Ageing and Health and professor of medicine at Newcastle University in the U.K., tells WebMD by email: "While it’s tempting of course to suggest that 'shop till you drop' is a recipe for healthy old age, the real picture is doubtless more complicated than this.
"Those who shop most may be the fittest and most socially engaged. Both these factors are known to be associated with better underlying physical and psychological health. They may also be better off financially, which we know is associated with greater health in old age. As the authors acknowledge themselves, we should be cautious before trying to draw any firm conclusion that retail therapy itself actually causes healthy longevity."
"In short, we do not fully understand what the basis of the shopping-favourable mortality linkage is, but it makes sense," Wahlqvist says. "It merits much more interest and research!"