If I asked you to suggest the best way to live to a hundred years, you might suggest getting your five-a-day or exercising daily. Professor Jessica Langbaum of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Arizona will disagree with you. In a recent interview, she said that “people who have a lot of social interactions, particularly in mid-life, have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s dementia in later life. There’s something about being around people that’s helpful for our brains.” Her claim is not insubstantial. There are several studies that appear to suggest that the quality of our relationships contribute vastly to our longevity.
A key study into what influences longevity began in 1938, during the depths of the Great Depression. A team of Harvard University scientists began tracking the health of 268 sophomore students in the hope of revealing the secrets to a happy and healthy life. Eighty years on and the Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the world’s longest studies of adult life.
“Researchers discovered that the quality of relationships with family, friends, and those in the wider community were better predictors of physical health at age 50 than cholesterol levels.”
The researchers at Harvard examined the physical and mental health of their participants as well as studying aspects of their lives as a whole. Researchers followed these men as they traversed life’s path, recording all of their life experiences from marriage and fatherhood to illness and addiction. These different factors were studied and compared in an effort to understand what influenced their health and their longevity. According to the study, the six main predictors of health were physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, maintaining a healthy weight and, interestingly, enjoying a stable marriage. Researchers discovered that the quality of relationships with family, friends, and those in the wider community were better predictors of physical health at age 50 than cholesterol levels. These close relationships, coupled with healthy lifestyle choices, appear to bolster people from life’s challenges as well as delay physical and mental decline.
Similar findings to the Harvard study have been unearthed in more recent research carried out by psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University. She studied a group of middle-aged people, covering every aspect of their life from diet and exercise, to marital status and doctors visits. She wanted to investigate what factors reduced the chances of dying the most. In order to investigate the predictive power of these factors, she returned to her participants seven years later to study their health and whether they had survived the seven years. Two of the weakest predictors turned out to be their weight, and how much exercise they did. Fascinatingly, one of the strongest predictors of health was having close relationships. Close relationships may be a source of joy and happiness, as well as providing comfort and support in more difficult times. The strongest predictor for longevity appears to be social integration, or how much the participants interact with people throughout their day. In both these instances, research suggests that the quality and the frequency of social interactions are the most influential in staying healthy and living longer.
“Regular affection resulting in elevated oxytocin levels may protect and repair the body’s muscles.”
So why can close relationships keep us alive longer than a physically healthy lifestyle can? Some answers lie in our neurotransmitters, chemical messengers which aid in the relay of information between neurons. An example that we may be familiar with is serotonin, a neurotransmitter thought to regulate mood and social behaviour. Face-to-face interaction prompts a release of a whole cascade of neurotransmitters which result in short term boosts like increased concentration and mood levels. Boosts like these benefit the brain immediately, and serve to strengthen possibly beneficial pathways over time. Simple social contact such as making eye contact or shaking hands results in a release of oxytocin. Researchers from Berkeley University suggest that oxytocin may have anti-aging effects as the scientists found a link between oxytocin and healthy muscle maintenance and repair. Oxytocin levels, in studies with mice, have been found to decline with age. This could be one possible reason for the link between healthy relationships, especially with spouses, and living longer. Regular affection resulting in elevated oxytocin levels may protect and repair the body’s muscles. As summed up by Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker, these in-person interactions create “a biological forcefield against disease and decline”.
“The longevity of Villagrande is staggering, with six times as many centenarians as there are on mainland Italy and ten times as many as there are in North America.”
Far from Harvard University, in a remote mountainous area of Sardinia, is the village of Villagrande. The longevity of Villagrande is staggering, with six times as many centenarians as there are on mainland Italy and ten times as many as there are in North America. Pinker sought to find the secret to this significant longevity. She studied their biology and habits, beginning with their genetic profile. Results suggested that genes accounted for only 25% of their longevity. The other 75% was a result of lifestyle. Pinker found that a common factor amongst these centenarians was their rich and varied social lives. The majority of the centenarians had lived their whole lives in Villagrande, a village with “dense housing and interwoven alleys and streets where villagers lives constantly intersect”. Throughout their lives and as they age, the people of Villagrande are always surrounded by people, and never left to live a solitary life. This lifestyle, coupled with healthy habits means that many residents of Villagrande are living happily into their hundreds.
In 2018, as we rely more and more on technology and social media for our communication with family and friends, we come into danger of forgetting the importance of real life interactions. In fact, there is considerable evidence which shows that spending a bit more face-to-face time with those most important to us can be beneficial, not only emotionally but physically too. As these studies show, for a long and healthy life social time is just as important, if not more important than your five-a-day.