When we think of improving our health and living a long life, we typically think of eating a better diet or getting more exercise. But there is another simple—and perhaps more enjoyable—way to ensure a long and healthy life.
Just what is this magic method?
Human connection. Socializing is more than just a way to spend our leisure time or have a little fun—it’s important for our health. This is something researchers have discovered as they study people who age well and live the longest.
In recent years, areas known as Blue Zones have been making headlines for the longevity of those living there. These areas are known to have more people living past 100 years than other parts of the world. But why?
There are a few factors. A healthy diet and frequent walking are part of it, but close, personal relationships play a critical role in the good health and long lives of people in these areas. In fact, their active and meaningful social lives may be more important than their healthy diets or physical activity.
Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy, is considered a Blue Zone. It has six times as many centenarians as the Italian mainland, and ten times as many as North America.
Psychologist Susan Pinker points out that Sardinia also has the distinction of being one of the few areas in the world where the men live as long as the women. In the United States, women outlive men by an average of five years, according to CDC statistics. The greatest female longevity advantage is found in Russia, where women outlive men by an average of 11 years.
Some research shows women find social interactions more rewarding than men, which may lead women to make more investments in maintaining their relationships. But perhaps the culture in Sardinia encourages people towards general social engagement, regardless of gender.
Socializing seems to be key in longevity. But not just any form of socializing—face-to-face interaction is what really makes a difference.
“Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters,” said Pinker. “So simply making eye contact with somebody, shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your cortisol levels. It lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high, and it kills pain. It’s like a naturally produced morphine. This face-to-face contact provides stunning benefits, yet now almost a quarter of the population said they have no one to talk to.”
Communicating through technology simply cannot provide the same kinds of benefits that real, human connection can.
On a side note, this has important implications in the current period of social distancing, when many of our everyday social interactions are being curtailed or prohibited.
An article by Elder Care Alliance on the secrets of centenarians notes that consistent social interaction is a part of life for centenarians. “More than 80 percent communicate with a friend or family member daily,” it notes. The network said that, for centenarians, being socially engaged with their community is vital to their longevity.
A Prescription for Physical Health
Family physician Dr. Tzvi Doron believes that socializing and close relationships are so important to the health of his patients, he prescribes socializing just as he would a medication.
“When I ‘prescribe’ social activities, I don’t have to caution patients about the potential negative side effects. In fact, questionnaires at my practice often include questions about their social circle, social behaviors, and social network. It’s that important to your health,” Dr. Doron said.
As a physician working with a geriatric population, I’ve come to discover the same. I once believed that diet, exercise, and our genes played the biggest roles in aging well. But as I’ve talked with more healthy, older patients over the years, I’ve found the most common factor they share is regular and consistent social lives.
Many studies have borne out what we physicians have observed in our patients. One such study, led by Nikole Valtorta in the British Medical Journal, discovered that those who had poor social connections had a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke. Surprisingly, even “perceived loneliness” has a negative impact on health, proving just how powerful the mind is.
Socializing has been shown to have many health benefits, including decreased blood pressure, increased pain tolerance, and even improved immunity—leading to a decreased incidence of the common cold and other diseases.
A study by Holt-Lunstad, Smith and Layton at Brigham Young showed that decreased social connections result in a 50 percent increased risk of early death, and is as harmful to our health as risk factors like smoking 15 cigarettes a day and obesity. Inflammation, a known contributor to things such as heart disease and arthritis, has also been shown to increase with decreased social connections.
In essence, a lack of social interaction impacts health in much the same way chronic disease or harmful lifestyle choices do.
Mental Health Impact
Of course, it’s not just physical health that’s impacted. Those who have regular social contact show a decrease in stress, anxiety, and depression while showing an increase in their resilience and compassion. And while advances in technology have their benefits, there’s just no replacing in-person, face-to-face contact for the positive psychological benefits it brings.
A study by the American Geriatrics Society confirmed that regular and frequent contact with friends and family leads to a lower incidence of depression in the elderly. “Clinicians should consider encouraging face-to-face social interactions as a preventive strategy for depression,” the authors suggested.
Studies have also shown that socializing not only improves memory, but may even help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The Journal of Gerontology followed 12,000 participants over a period of 10 years, and found a strong correlation between dementia and loneliness, demonstrating that those who feel the loneliest have a 40 percent increased risk for dementia.
It was during the Great Depression, in the year 1938, that Harvard began one of the world’s longest known studies, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The goal of the study was to discover the factors that contribute to a healthy and happy life. The ongoing study has now followed the health of participants for over 80 years. While it has expanded to include groups outside of Harvard, it has continued to follow the original remaining participants.
Now in their mid to late 90’s, of the original Harvard group, only 19 are still alive. Interestingly, included among the group of participants was eventual President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
Commenting on the study, the Harvard Gazette notes, “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.”
The Gazette article noted that those social ties protected people from life’s various hardships, delayed mental and physical decline, and were better predictors of long and happy lives than were genes, social class, or IQ.
Professor Robert Waldinger, the study’s fourth and current director, told the Harvard Gazette, “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.” He goes on to say in his TED talk What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness, that “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
Dr. George Vaillant, a psychiatrist who joined the team of researchers in 1966, and who went on to lead the study from 1972 through 2004, came to understand the vital role relationships play in living healthy, long, and happy lives, “The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships,” he concluded.
With studies showing rates of loneliness are rising at an alarming rate, AARP has developed a program called Connect2Affect. “By drawing attention to how isolation can harm both physical and brain health, we hope to empower and inspire older people to take steps themselves to increase the number and quality of their social contacts,” said representative Sarah Lock.
Senior Planet is also trying to fill the need by offering more than 60 online programs for learning and connecting with others, while Element3 Health offers physical, social, and mental activities for members on insurance plans that have contracted for these services.
When I was considering writing this article last fall, the CCP virus (COVID-19) and social distancing were not part of our vernacular. Yet even then, a lack of personal connection could be found in all age groups, including in those as young as their teens.
As a matter of fact, the number of people who say they have no close friends has nearly tripled since 1985. While this may seem strange in the era of social media, Time Magazine points out, “the ‘friends’ orbiting at the farthest reaches of your digital galaxy aren’t the ones that matter when it comes to your health and happiness.”
Of particular concern is the elderly, a group for whom social distancing and isolation have proven to be a real hardship.
While working last month in Florida, a state with a large population of healthy, active elderly folks, I heard the same story time and again, “Before the virus, I was never home. Like everyone in our neighborhood, I was always involved in some sort of social activity. When the lockdown began, we called each other every day, but gradually, the phone calls have become fewer and fewer, and now, I rarely talk to my friends.”
With a look of sadness, this patient went on to say, “I can’t go to the gym or our community pool, I can’t hug my neighbor, I can’t go out dancing with my husband, or even go to church … and we don’t know when we’ll be able do these things again. I find myself becoming a bit depressed by it all.”
Amidst this difficult situation, Very Well Mind has listed some things folks can do to help maintain some sort of normalcy in their lives. For example, sticking to a daily, planned routine and schedule, taking a walk around your neighborhood every day, working on an art or home improvement project, gardening, joining an online book club like the one at Goodreads, connecting with family or friends on a daily basis, or connecting with someone else who’s stuck at home through QuarntineChat, can all help you feel more connected and give you something to look forward to.
We are designed to be social beings; it’s part of who we are. That’s why social isolation has long been used as a form of torture for prisoners of war—its impact is that significant.
Our human connection helps provide us with a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and a sense of well-being, not to mention the positive effects it has on our mental and physical health.
With society’s current situation, let’s hope we’re not making the cure worse than the disease.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.