In recent months, inspirational centenarians such as Captain Tom Moore have shown us that it’s possible to live a long and healthy life – but how do we do it?
This is a question that Washington Post journalist Marta Zaraska has sought to answer in a new book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.
In her book, Zaraska explains how social connections and community can help you live a fulfilling, healthy life. Read on to find out some of her secrets to longevity.
Your social life has a physiological impact on your health
Over several years, Zaraska travelled the world speaking to academics, scientists, and centenarians to find out the secrets of living a long life.
During her research, Zaraska found that, on average, we will spend 18% of our lives impacted by illness. However, those who live up to 100 years are ill for only 5% of their lives. However, genetic susceptibility to disease is only one factor in our longevity – in fact, our life expectancy is only between 20% and 25% inherited.
This means that the lifestyle changes you may have already made to improve your health could well have their benefits. From more regular exercise to health-conscious dietary choices, many things you may already do to take care of your health can contribute to your longevity.
For example, Zaraska points out that reducing your lipid intake by replacing butter with olive oil in your diet (which can lower the likelihood of premature death by 21%) is a great choice.
However, it’s not just diet and exercise choices that affect how long you’ll live, as other lifestyle choices also matter.
The social network you have built for yourself and the relationships you foster with your friends and family play an important role in keeping you healthy – even on a purely physiological level.
For example, the hormone cortisol is released in your body during times of stress. It is one of the hormones associated with the ‘fight or flight’ instinct, which served an essential purpose when prehistoric humans had to be on high alert in case of predators.
These days, stressful, cortisol-releasing situations may do you more harm than good. Long-term exposure to the hormone can lead to prolonged health problems due to chronic inflammation, such as diabetes and arthritis.
Loneliness is one such stressful experience that can negatively affect your health. So, actively participating in your community and nurturing interpersonal relationships, rather than adjusting your diet or picking up a new sport can reduce your stress levels. Doing so can reduce the amount of cortisol your body releases and is just one reason why fostering a support network of people can keep you healthy.
Looking after your social connections promotes better ageing
As your social network has such a direct influence on your health, it is important to know how to maintain healthy relationships, and why interacting with people could benefit your wellbeing. There are several things to consider.
1. Have a network of people you interact with regularly
In addition to the physiological benefits of not feeling lonely, a reliable group of people in your life can be called upon to support you when you find yourself in need of assistance. From help in moving house to doing the shopping when you’re ill, you’re more likely to live longer with plenty of friends to fall back on in times of need.
Zaraska cites a Dutch study which found that each person in your regular social network lowers your risk of dying within the next five years by 2%. This illustrates how there can be clear benefits in looking after each other.
In the past few months, you may have experienced this first-hand through the various mutual aid and community groups springing into action in the wake of Covid-19.
2. Maintain the quality of your relationships
You don’t have to be a crowd-loving extrovert to maintain a social network capable of supporting your mental and physical health. The quality of your relationships is far more important. For example, having a happy marriage can reduce your chance of premature death by almost half.
Being able to maintain healthy relationships even during difficult times also helps. A study discussed in the book found that arguing in a constructive, less personally combative way will help you to process food better. Arguing kindly will keep your insulin levels lower and help you metabolise nutrients faster than when you make it personal.
3. Enjoy direct physical contact
Where appropriate, physical touch is a reliable way of building trust between people. The release of the hormone oxytocin during a hug as short as 20 seconds helps form a bond between the huggers. Prolonged exposure encourages the development of neurons and even reduces pain.
If you’re not comfortable with physical contact or you’re unable to be in proximity to people right now due to Covid-19, you can stimulate similar physical responses without touch.
Talking to loved ones through calls, video chats, and text messages while holding a warm drink or a pet can have the same effect. This is due to the insula, the part of our brains that perceives temperature, also being associated with how we perceive other people.
These examples illustrate the overarching ethos of Zaraska’s work. You can aim to live a better, longer life by “easing up on yourself, spending more time with friends and family, and laughing more often—and the sooner you start, the better.”
Your wellbeing and mental health can be affected by your finances
Many studies have shown a link between financial and general wellbeing, and so looking after your money can help you to reduce stress and live longer.
A study conducted by mobile bank N26 found that financial anxiety impacts the mental health of almost 9.5 million UK adults. The sleep of 32% of these is negatively affected by their anxieties, while a quarter of those aged 45 to 54 worry about their finances ‘constantly’.
Establishing a financial safety net can be one way to alleviate your stress. According to a study by Lloyds Bank, 74% of people who consistently contribute to their savings feel happy, as opposed to only 36% of those who do not have savings. Out of these consistent savers, 54% agree that having savings has had a positive impact on their mental health.
There are other options to consider when taking steps to alleviate your financial worries and improve your mental health – and you don’t have to do it alone.
According to a survey by Unbiased, less than half of people feel confident making financial decisions by themselves. This is where working with a financial planner can help. Your planner can help you to create a lifetime financial plan, provide reassurance and guidance, and undertake some of the ‘heavy lifting’ as far as your finances are concerned.
Whether it’s by taking time to appreciate the people in your social network or enjoying the security of financial stability, taking steps to reduce stress can lead to a marked improvement in your quality of life, and improve the chances of reaching your 100th birthday.
As Zaraska says: “If we invest more in being kind, mindful and conscientious, we are more likely to improve the conditions in which we all live.”
Get in touch
If you have questions about how you can provide financial security for your loved ones or ensure you have enough to maintain your lifestyle in retirement, please get in touch. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (0161) 8080200.