RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now from robots to real friends, meaning people. Researchers know that social ties and participation in leisure activities are two predictors of good health in later life, but it can be hard to keep making friends. NPR's Allison Aubrey talked to an 81-year-old man who's new hobby has opened up a brand-new world.

ALLISON AUBREY: The church choir is one way that people can connect through music. But 81-year-old Art Himmel is cut from a different cloth. He gets a charge from performing karaoke - occasionally at senior centers, but also at an LA nightclub.

Unidentified Man: Performing for first time tonight, ladies and gentlemen, the man of the hour. Let's give it up for Art.

(Soundbite of "Tonight")

Mr. ART HIMMEL: (Singing) Tonight, tonight, it all began tonight. I saw you and the world went away.

AUBREY: Part of Art's story is told in a short documentary shown at the American Film Institute's Silver Docs festival this month. You can also find a link to the documentary on NPR's Web site. When we spoke to Art from his apartment in LA, he explained that at this stage in life, he and his wife has lost a lot of their longtime friends. Some have moved away, some have died, and others have just slowed down to the point they don't go out much.

Mr. HIMMEL: But when I started doing karaoke, I got new friends, much younger. But I think that the nicest aspect of that is they'll call if they don't see me and find out if I'm okay. So there's concern on their part.

AUBREY: Despite battling colon cancer and dealing with other disappointments in the last few years, Art says he thinks the singing and the interaction with people keeps him going. And researchers who study aging say there's a lot to this.

Dr. CARLOS MENDEZ DE LEON (Rush Institute for Healthy Aging): The story of this karaoke singer certainly fits the pattern that we've seen in our data.

AUBREY: Carlos Mendez de Leon is a researcher with the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging. He says there's a lot of evidence to suggest that being engaged in the world with people reduces the risk of disability and mental decline. And a recent study from Australia finds some relationships, mainly friendships, may be even more protective than ties with family when it comes to longevity. Mendez de Leon says one possibly explanation is that we're expected to maintain relationships with siblings and children.

Dr. DE LEON: But relationships with friends tend to perhaps provide more positive outcomes because they are discretionary.

AUBREY: To keep friendships up, people usually do things together, whether it's something as simple as going to lunch, volunteering or singing karaoke. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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