In ‘Growing Young,’ author explains how social connections help people stay healthy

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Sue Anderson, center, walks with a group of friends at St. Johns City Park on July 27, 2020. Anderson and the walking group are wearing shirts she is selling that suggest wearing a mask. The proceeds are being donated to a local needs center. Photo credit: Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Chronic loneliness can increase people’s risk of dying by more than 80%. That’s one of the provocative details in a new book called “Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.” Author and science journalist Marta Zaraska found that social networks are more important for good health than diet and exercise. 

She explains that relationships play a big role in stress reduction: “We are stressing about college admissions, about mortgages, about our jobs. … These are usually chronic, low-level stresses. And they’re very, very bad for us because they cause a whole cascade of downhill physiological changes that may lead to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. … Whereas when you’re in a trusted, loving relationship — both romantic and with your friends, with your family, even connected to your neighbors — this really calms us down.”

The front cover of "Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100"  by Marta Zaraska (Penguin Random House, 2020)

An excerpt from "Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100" 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. A recent review of almost a hundred studies showed that people who have a BMI (body mass index) of 30 to 35 (that’s grade one obesity) are 5 percent less likely to succumb to the grim reaper than those that are lean. 

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 smoking 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 per- cent. 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. 

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Copyright © 2020 byMarta Zaraska 

Credits

Guest:
Marta Zaraska - science Journalist and author of “Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin