How Relationships Influence Longevity

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At one time or another, we have all wondered what the key to a long and healthy life really is. Typically you would think that eating clean and vigorous exercise is the key to success, but a study conducted in the 2000’s had shocking results. While diet and physical activity are important, the relationships we have in life greatly outweigh the two.

As part of an expedition with National Geographic, Dan Buettner scouted the globe to find regions where there are the highest densities of elderly people. Five locations scattered around the world exhibited remarkable longevity: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece and Loma Linda, California. These places are referred to as blue zones.

Amanda Hahn, is a psychology professor at HSU who understands the social strain that comes with going to school online. She forms study groups for her students to ensure they have a support group at all times.

“Social integration has been shown to be the single biggest predictor of longevity,” said Hahn. “Having a core support network is crucial. Also how much you interact with people, whether it’s good or bad.”

Analysts of the blue zone study found that genes account for only a small portion of our longevity. Lifestyle choices reigned supreme. Other indicators found in the blue zones are eating wisely, moving naturally and often, and having a purpose in life.

Besides being good for the mind, hearty relationships create a biological force field against disease and decline. Social isolation is the biggest public health risk we face in the twenty-first century.

In 1938 Harvard began The Grant Study, one of the most well known longitudinal studies ever done. This study followed hundreds of men throughout their lives and collected data about their physical and mental wellbeing. They found strong relationships positively influenced lives more than wealth, fame, or IQ.

Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and current director of the study, found that strong relationships delay mental and physical decline. We often forget that nurturing our relationships in life is a form of self care.

Many have been quarantining, especially the elderly since they are at a higher risk of catching the virus. Some were able to stay connected through technology during lockdowns. The elderly are not as tech savvy which isolates them even more.

Isolation is difficult for everyone, but if one doesn’t have a solid social network it can be especially hard. Centenarians (people the age 100 or older) in blue zones are never left alone. Which differs vastly from most of the world where people live far from loved ones.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a researcher and neuroscience professor at BYU found that all social interactions do not need to be positive, anything will do. Grumpy centenarians are alive and well, but they are constantly surrounded by their tight-knit support group. Whether it is their family, friends, priest or the local market owner, these centenarians are well respected and taken care of.

“When we feel some sort of threat, such as a pathogen, we tend to hunker down into our trusted inner circle,” Hahn said. “We get an us versus them mentality. So I can see why the pandemic has strengthened some relationships.”

Ultimately, the relationships we have in life can help add years on to our lives. Do you want to start integrating positive social changes into your life? Try to start a conversation with the grocery store clerk, and maybe call your mom more than once a month.

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