The very fact that you are taking time out to read this article probably means that you are investing in your health and fitness by taking part in regular exercise and maintaining a healthy diet. But have you considered that there are other everyday factors that just as much, if not greater impact on your health and longevity?
One thing that connects us all is that we are not getting any younger! However, the way in which we age can differ significantly depending on where you live, how you move, what you eat and how you think. But were you aware that the quality of the friendships and relationships in our lives has a far-reaching influence on our health substantially more than that of healthy diet or exercise?
In her international bestseller Age Proof: The New Science of Living a Longer and Healthier Life, Professor Rose Anne Kenny*, goes on to unveil that just 20 percent of ageing is down to genetics and can’t be changed whilst 80 percent is epigenetic, meaning we have the ability to influence how quickly or how gradually we age.
The COVID pandemic highlighted the need for us all to take care of one’s health, but the numerous lockdowns forced many into isolation which had a greater impact on their health.
According to the TILDA study**, loneliness increased threefold during the pandemic and almost 4 years on from the first lockdown many are still feeling afraid to reconnect. Human beings are inherently social creatures, our collective interactions and connection to others enables us to survive and thrive. Yet, as we age, many of us are alone more often than when we were younger, leaving us vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness—and related health problems such as cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease.
"Life is nothing without friendship." Cicero
The health benefits of community were first uncovered in America in the late 1950’s. At this time, drugs to lower cholesterol levels were neither popular nor readily available, as a result of dietary changes and increased stress levels, heart diseases were spreading in the US like an epidemic. Yet in the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania there were nearly no heart attacks for the high-risk group of men – 55 to 64. Whilst men over 65 had a death rate of 1%, while the national average was 2% (1954-1961).
Researchers initially thought that a unique diet was the underlying differences. But further investigation discovered that they cooked with lard, loved pasta, drank wine, feasted on sausages, and smoked the occasional cigar.
Although the Roseto men worked in quarries and mines, the population did not follow any regular exercise routine, and many were overweight. Interestingly, records of Rosetans living in other parts of the US showed that their mortality rate from heart disease was similar to those of other Americans.
After a prolonged stay in Roseto observing the day to day lives of its inhabitants, Sociologist John Bruhn, and Stewart Wolf, (Head of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma) were able to ‘crack the code’ to their longevity and happiness. Founded by Italian settlers in the 1880’s Roseto was a close-knit community where several generations of a single family often lived together under the same roof. They loved and supported each other and engaged as a community, with high attendances at clubs, societies, and church.
Study Director Dr Robert Waldinger believes that "Personal connection creates emotional stimulation, which is an automatic mood booster, while isolation is a mood buster,” And goes on to state, “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.”
More recently, journalist Dan Buettner, National Geographic, and a team of scientists and demographers travelled the world in in 2004 in search of communities where people not only lived longer but also enjoyed a high quality of life in their old age. They identified 5 areas in the world where people lived exceptionally long lives, (many living into their 90’s and 100’s). **** Once more, they discovered that genetics in all probability only accounts for 20–30% of this longevity, meaning environmental influences, including diet and lifestyle play a huge role in determining their lifespan. In all the identified 9 key lifestyle habits which set these groups apart, none of which included joining gyms or pumping iron. Instead, they move naturally, have vegetable gardens which they tend to daily and don’t have mechanical conveniences for housework.
Each group had a sense of purpose, or ‘Why I wake up in the morning’!’ According to Buettner and his team, knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. Although each of the groups in the Blue Zones experience stress, they have routines or rituals to alleviate or shed that stress. Some take time out each day to remember their ancestors, others pray, or take a nap whilst the Sardinians do happy hour!
During the research, the team interviewed 263 centenarians and discovered that all but five belonged to a faith-based community. It did not appear to matter which denomination, but their research showed that attending faith-based services four times per month can add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
Just like the inhabitants of Roseto, blue zone communities place their families first, with aging parents and grandparents living in close proximity or in the home. They have committed to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest time, love, and affection in their children.
Another common feature of Blue Zone communities is that its occupants chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviours. In Okinawan they create” moais”–groups of five friends that commit to each other for life.
Changes in working practices post COVID mean that many of us work from home on a more regular basis. Weekly food drops to the door mean that we no longer face the hassle of the supermarket and ‘immediate’ streaming means we can watch the latest blockbuster from the comfort of our own home. Whilst many of these changes make life a little easier, we are also missing out on many social interactions, that form the building blocks of our health and wellbeing. Those water-cooler chats, after work drinks or the chance meeting of friends or acquaintances in the supermarket aisle have gone, leaving us socially stunted if not poorer!
Whilst exercise and healthy eating should form the cornerstone of our wellness lifestyle, it is important that we do not overlook the simple things that have proven to make greater impacts both in Roseto and the Blue Zones. After all, staying connected with others means you may help boost your mood and improve your overall well-being. So, find your tribe, cultivate your friendships, and create your healthy environment.
"Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief." Cicero
*Professor Rose Anne Kenny - Medical gerontologist and Regius Professor of Physic and Chair of Medical Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin and founding Principal Investigator of Ireland’s largest population study of ageing (TILDA)
**The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) is a large-scale, nationally representative, longitudinal study on ageing in Ireland, the overarching aim of which is to make Ireland the best place in the world to grow old.
**** Blue Zones Power of 9
Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
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