Making New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, eat more superfoods or exercise may be all well and good. But in terms of living a long life, science writer Marta Zaraska argues those actions won’t help you as much as improving connections to other people.
Human contact is crucial for good health, says Zaraska, author of the new book, “Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.” She illustrates this point by explaining how the mind communicates with the body, especially when we are under stress.
In our evolutionary past, being alone usually meant being under stress from potential lurking danger. Humans, innately social beings, evolved to recognize when we are safe with other humans from accidents or predators, she says. One of those adaptations is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, she says.
The HPA axis “starts with the signal in your brain that tells you that there is a reason to be stressed and then sends a soup of hormones throughout your body, basically one triggering another and so on and so on,” she explains.
Those hormones — cortisol, known as the stress hormone, or adrenaline — ramp up your body to face dangers, she says. But over time, humans’ stressors have changed dramatically. The HPA axis is now “chronically activated” by stress points such as finances, work, school or even traffic, she says. That means the hormones are constantly flooding the body, putting us in a perpetual fight or flight mode.
There are “detrimental downstream effects” from the ceaseless barrage of stress hormones, such as higher risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease, she says.
But at the same time, so-called “social hormones” — oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins and vasopressin — can also be activated when we’re socially connected to other people. Those also have key impacts on our health, she says.
One example is the Roseto effect. In the early 1960s, a close-knit community in Roseto, Pennsylvania, had a death rate that was about 35% lower than the general U.S. population.
By Western standards, Roseto residents weren’t particularly healthy people — many engaged in drinking, smoking and bad eating habits. There was also nothing unusual about their genes, Zaraska says.
But their deep social connections proved valuable. At the time, no one was dying from heart attacks in Roseto, she says. This attracted scientists to study the population.
Researchers found the Roseto community — built on 22 civic organizations for only 2,000 inhabitants and principles of volunteering, taking care of public space and caring for each other — actually yielded “amazing health,” she says.
But researchers also predicted that if Roseto residents lost their communal touch, their overall health would deteriorate, Zaraska says.
“Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened generations later in the ‘70s and ‘80s and so on,” she says. “And when people started pursuing the so-called American dream and living in the suburbs, buying cars, working longer hours, they stopped being so connected to their community [and] their health also just went back to American average.”
In “Growing Young,” Zaraska says human connection is not just a want, but a need. Building in-person relationships and being social have all but come to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zaraska is hopeful this time period of social isolation won’t shorten lives because “it’s quite a temporary state.”
If the pandemic dragged on for years and years, that’s when Zaraska says she’d be much more worried.
“It is true that we need the connection,” she says. “Loneliness has very serious detrimental effects on our health. People who are lonely have higher blood pressure.”
Fortunately, there are still ways to connect with others during the pandemic, she says. Volunteering in person or online is a great way to boost your health and longevity, she advises, as well as performing acts of kindness.
Engaging in kindness and experiencing empathy cannot be overstated, as Zaraska writes in her book. In collaboration with scientists at King’s College London, she took part in an experiment to measure her cortisol, the stress hormone.
After seven days of performing small acts of kindness and a week of life as usual, she was amazed at the results. She saw measurable differences in her day-to-day. Her levels of cortisol were much better on days where she was kind to others, even if the day was still considerably stressful, she says.
Her results mimicked the positive findings of a research study in California that connected acts of kindness to less bodily inflammation. Study participants did small favors, such as buying a stranger a coffee or letting someone go first in traffic.
Zaraska also writes about dietary fads, including how goji berries aren’t improving your health in the long term. She argues a healthy, exercise enthusiast who is lonely and antisocial may not live as long as a couch potato with a bountiful social life and a lot of friends.
“Of course, the best scenario is when you are socially connected, optimistic, and you eat healthy and exercise,” she says. “But if something has to give, completely giving up on your social life is not a good health strategy.”
By Marta Zaraska
In our culture we tend to think about longevity in terms of healthy food and exercise. Asked in a poll what they were doing to stay healthy, 56 percent of Americans mentioned “physical activity” and 26 percent “watching food/drink.” The only category that might have involved boosting relationships or changing mindsets was “other”—and it got just 8 percent of the vote. We don’t realize that volunteering or investing in friendships can help increase our lifespans. Instead, we worry about gluten and obsess about pesticides and mercury in fish. We sign up for Zumba and spinning classes. We search for easy rejuvenating therapies.
The global anti-aging market is already worth upward of $250 billion, and Americans spend more on longevity cures than they do on any other kind of drug, even though most are untested by science. We love pills: about a half of Americans and Canadians take at least one dietary supplement. There are now over 55,000 such products on the US market alone, from moringa leaves to ashwagandha powder. And then, we diet. In one survey, 56 percent of women said they wanted to lose weight to live longer, yet the research on whether this will work is ambiguous.
Of course, eating healthy food and doing sports are important for health and longevity, but not as important as we tend to think (and certainly moringa leaves are not required). It’s a bit like with smok- ing and nutrition. Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day is so bad for you that it overshadows the best of diets, but that doesn’t mean that non-smokers can rest on their laurels and stuff themselves with junk food. Apart from shunning tobacco, investing in a thriving social life might be the best thing you could do for your longevity. Consider the numbers. Studies show that building a strong support network of family and friends lowers mortality risk by about 45 percent. Exercise, on the other hand, can lower mortality risk by 23 to 33 percent. Eating six or more servings of vegetables and fruits per day, which is admittedly quite a lot, can cut mortality risk by 26 percent, while following the Mediterranean diet—so eating lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, replacing butter with olive oil, etc.—21 percent. Of course, such numbers should be taken with caution, coming as they do from studies with varying methodologies which means they are not straightforward to compare, but they do reveal some important general trends.
In recent years science has begun to unveil how much our minds and bodies are intertwined. Technological advances in molecular biology and brain imaging techniques allow researchers to look deeper into the many links between our
thoughts and emotions and our physiology. The vagus nerve, the social hormones oxytocin and serotonin, the stress axes such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis—all of these emerge as the reasons behind why friendships or kindness matter for longevity. Oxytocin, for example, has been linked with our social skills on one hand, and with health on the other. It has anti-inflammatory properties, reduces pain, and helps bone growth, potentially preventing osteoporosis. Studies also show that spraying oxytocin into the nostrils of squabbling married couples makes them more likely to reconcile. It makes us better at reading facial expressions of emotions, and it makes us more trusting. It can even make husbands stand further away from pretty women. Gut microbiota, another link between the body and the mind, play a role in many diseases including diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and allergies, while also affecting emotions and personality. The vagus nerve, the longest of the nerves that emerge directly from the brain, which is responsible for breathing, swallowing, and digestion, has been implicated in sudden psychogenic death reported among the tribes of Africa and the islands of the Pacific.
Marta Zaraska, “Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.