How to live to 100 and enjoy it! Yes, diet and exercise DO matter – but, as scientists are only just realising, friendships can add years to your life too
- Marta Zaraska has been a writer for Washington Post and Scientiﬁc American
- Scientists say we need to look at the softer social and psychological approaches
- A committed romantic relationship can lower your risk of early death by 49%
We all want to live a long and healthy life, so we fret over diets, source organic goji berries, look up the latest cardiovascular workouts and spend hundreds of pounds on fitness trackers. But in our obsession with this wellness-junkie lifestyle, are we missing the real drivers of long life?
As a health writer on the Washington Post and Scientiﬁc American, I dig through hundreds of research papers every year and talk to dozens of scientists. And out of this research, a new story is beginning to emerge, suggesting that exercise gadgets and kale juice are not as important to health as we used to think. Studies that shatter long-held beliefs are repeated over and over in academic papers.
To encourage longevity, to make it to 100, scientists say that, rather than focus solely on diet and exercise, we need to concentrate on softer social and psychological approaches that will benefit us more.
Having a large social network of friends, family and neighbours can reduce the likelihood of early death by 45 per cent
The number one thing you can do for long life is to have a committed romantic relationship. This, according to some studies, can lower your risk of early death by a staggering 49 per cent.
Second, have a large social network of friends, family and neighbours, which can reduce the likelihood of early death by 45 per cent. Third, foster a conscientious personality: this cuts the risk by 44 per cent.
All these softer social attributes may be as good for you in terms of longevity as eating six portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
This doesn’t mean you should stop eating your veg or going for a run; but it does mean you can tackle your health issues from another direction, by investing more in your mind and your friendships, and easing up on the stressful obsession with fitness and nutrition.
I wrote my new book, Growing Young, out of a belief that, in the deluge of reductionist wellness news, we’ve lost the big picture.
Following the advice below, all of it culled from scientific papers and interviews with experts, could mean not only a healthier life but a more gratifying one.
A life worth living, in fact.
GAZE INTO THE EYES OF THE FAMILY POOCH
So-called ‘social hormones’ pay a vital role both in our social lives and our health. One of these is oxytocin — known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ because levels rise when we’re hugging a loved one.
Oxytocin’s effects are so powerful that some researchers have dubbed it the ‘elixir of youth’. There’s evidence that oxytocin has anti-inﬂammatory properties, that it promotes formation of new neurons in adult brains, that it reduces pain and helps bone growth, potentially preventing osteoporosis.
A remarkable experiment published in 2015 in the journal Science revealed that exchanging long gazes with your pooch effectively boosts oxytocin levels in both dog and owner
To get more of its health-boosting and life-prolonging benefits, don’t just hug your loved ones — do so while gazing deeply into their eyes.
It works on pets, too. A remarkable experiment published in 2015 in the journal Science revealed that exchanging long gazes with your pooch effectively boosts oxytocin levels in both dog and owner.
MAKE A BIG COMMITMENT
There’s no better way to improve your chances of living to 100 than marriage. A happy marriage (note the word ‘happy’) equals a 49 per cent lower early mortality risk.
Married people have lower risks of heart issues, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. They sleep more soundly and respond better to flu vaccines. And, when it comes to cancer, marriage can be more effective than chemotherapy.
There’s no better way to improve your chances of living to 100 than marriage. A happy marriage
When researchers followed more than 700,000 patients with several different types of cancer, they found that those who were married had between 12 and 33 per cent higher chances of survival than their single counterparts — higher than is usually found for the effects of chemotherapy.
Overall, the effects of marriage on longevity far surpass those commonly found for healthy eating or exercise.
ROLLING YOUR EYES AT HIM MAKES YOU FAT!
In A fascinating 2016 experiment, couples were asked to discuss a topic they disagreed on for 20 minutes while researchers noted their levels of hostility, including eye-rolling and critical comments.
After the marital squabbling session was over, the husbands and wives were served a fatty meal of egg and sausage totalling almost 1,000 calories. For the next seven hours, the volunteers remained at the lab while their bodily functions were repeatedly measured.
Amazingly, the couples who fought most unpleasantly had lower resting energy expenditure and higher insulin after the greasy meal, meaning their bodies were not dealing well with all that fat.
The difference in energy intake from the food between the dirty ﬁghters and those who were nicer to their spouses was 128 calories.
Over a year, that could add up to almost 8lb (3.6 kg) of extra weight. Eye-rolling really can make you fat!
A POSITIVITY FOLIO PAYS DIVIDENDS
According to William Shakespeare in The Taming Of The Shrew, ‘Frame your mind to mirth and merriment , which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life’.
Science is now catching up with literature. Among the 10,000 academic papers that come out each year on the topic of subjective wellbeing, many are ﬁnding that positivity equals better health and a better shot at becoming a centenarian.
A science-tested way of injecting more positivity into your marriage is creating something psychologists call a ‘positivity portfolio’.
Make a list of the things you love about your spouse; place happy photos of the two of you around the house and listen to your special songs from time to time
Make a list of the things you love about your spouse; place happy photos of the two of you around the house and listen to your special songs from time to time. Express gratitude. When your partner does something nice, thank them for it.
There are proven links between your emotions and your health — and a happy, stress-free relationship can mean a long life.
BFFs BEFORE KOFs (KIND OF FRIENDS)
Study after study shows that having friends and meeting up with them is great for your health — and the reverse is very bad indeed.
One Japanese study showed that rarely meeting friends was worse for you than not eating any fruit and veg at all.
So how many do you need and how often should you see them? Scientists have often tried to answer these questions, but they’re especially relevant during a time of social distancing.
In some studies, the minimum frequency is once every two weeks while, in others, the more often the better — at least once per week.
As for the number, University of Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar has famously calculated that humans can support only one to two special friends, about ﬁve intimate friends, and 150 ‘kind-of’ friends (KOFs).
A special friend is basically your BFF (Best Friend Forever). The ﬁve intimate friends are those whom we could call on in a crisis.
The 150 ‘kind-of’ friends are those with whom we can support meaningful but not necessarily close relationships. So it’s not surprising that the most common number of so-called ‘friends’ on Facebook is between 150 and 250.
But many psychologists warn that we should be careful with Facebook friendships. Two large studies, published in 2017, found that even though real-life friendships boosted self-reported health, Facebook ones did not.
BUT TAKE CARE NOT TO ‘PHUBB’ THEM!
Even if you haven’t heard the word yet, you’ve likely experienced the phenomenon.
If you’re phubbed, you’re ignored by someone who turns away from you to attend to their phone (the word comes from a mix of ‘phone’ and ‘snub’). We’ve all seen it. A family on a picnic, all checking their phones instead of talking. A friend picking up a phone mid-conversation to reply to a text that’s just arrived. Women, in general, phubb more often than men do.
If you’re phubbed, you’re ignored by someone who turns away from you to attend to their phone
It may appear to be just a simple annoyance but, in reality, phubbing is a type of ostracism, which damages health. Social exclusion can cause real pain: in experiments, it’s been shown to activate neural networks that normally respond to physical pain — and it can even change our genes.
Research that’s beginning to emerge shows that phubbing makes the offline conversation appear less satisfying to us which, in turn, taints our perception of the whole relationship with the phubber or phubbee. In other words: the more you text and check your Instagram feed, the lower your partner will rate your relationship, and so will you.
HAVE HOT CHOCOLATE AFTER AN ARGUMENT
Warming yourself up can help deal with feelings of loneliness and exclusion, both of which are damaging to health. A hot drink can lift your mood when you’re upset after a row. It can be hot chocolate or tea — as long as holding it warms up your hands.
Warming yourself up can help deal with feelings of loneliness and exclusion, both of which are damaging to health
The key to this lies in the insula, a small, pyramid-shaped structure deep within the brain that’s important both for how we perceive temperature and how we perceive others.
That link can be traced right back to the days when humans huddled with others for warmth just like other animals (think of Emperor penguins in a blizzard). The warmer people feel, the more trusting and ‘warm’ they are toward fellow humans.
ORGANISE YOUR CUPBOARDS
If you were to pick just one personality trait to work on in order to increase your chances of living to 100, it would be conscientiousness — a penchant for tidying, planning and preparing.
The positive effects of being organised and industrious are found in all cultures. If you could ingest conscientiousness in a pill, it would be a miracle drug. Its effects would be much stronger than those of aspirin on reducing heart disease, for example.
Set yourself small challenges of conscientious things to try to do and, eventually, the habit will stick
Yes, conscientious people don’t eat much fast food; they exercise regularly and follow doctors’ advice. They choose stable friendships, stay married, succeed at work and wear seat belts.
Psychologists studying the topic believe direct biological mechanisms are at play, such as the functioning of the immune and nervous systems, but it’s still not well understood.
Until it is, fake it until you make it. Set yourself small challenges of conscientious things to try to do and, eventually, the habit will stick.
Keep your office desk neat. Organise your sock drawer. Set out your clothes the night before.
THREE THINGS TO APPROACH WITH CAUTION
In Britain, as many as 20 per cent of people use wearable technology to count their steps — but whether all these exercise trackers actually work is another issue.
A study in Singapore showed that using a Fitbit does not lead to improved health or ﬁtness. Even more troubling was another trial in which wearing a ﬁtness tracker actually led to slower weight loss.
According to meta-analyses of studies, taking 400 iu or more of vitamin E a day can actually shorten your life, and so can beta-carotene and vitamin A supplements. One reason for the damaging effects of some vitamins may lie in the tricky workings of antioxidants in our bodies.
Often touted as quasi-miraculous substances that can wipe up dangerous free radicals and prevent ageing, in reality the antioxidants that we swallow as supplements have much less rosy effects on our cells.
Facial expressions can trigger or change emotions. It’s called facial feedback and studies show this process malfunctions in people who have Botox injections. Due to the paralysis of some facial muscles, such people can’t frown or smile properly, and ﬁnd it difficult to mimic or identify the feelings of others.
We know from observations of people with Parkinson’s disease that those with facial rigidity have trouble keeping friends.
Meanwhile, research on chronic anger suppression suggests that not showing how mad you are by frowning or scrunching your nose can lead to cardiovascular problems.
So far there’s not enough data on Botox to suggest how large the effects on health and longevity might be, but early indications of potential issues are certainly there.
- Adapted by Alison Roberts from Growing Young: How Friendship, Kindness And Optimism Can Help You Live To 100, by Marta Zaraska, to be published by Robinson on June 16, 2020, at £14.99.
© 2020 Marta Zaraska.
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