The secret to a long life: social connection!
Issue 85: Why the cultures of communities likely matter just as much - or more - than individual lifestyles for longevity
What is the secret to a long life?
Answering this age-old question is the premise of a new show on Netflix called “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones”. In the show, Dan Buettner travels to areas around the world — including Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California — where people live significantly longer than average, including many who live past 100.
He concludes that: “I have found that most of what people think leads to a long, healthy life is misguided or just plain wrong”. The gym memberships and supplements people spend millions on might matter far less that other lifestyle factors.
Instead, many of the features associated with longevity are are embedded in the cultures of communities, rather than individual traits. It should come as little surprise that people in these places tend to eat healthy diets (e.g., plant-based, with little processed foods) and exercise (e.g., walking or gardening daily).
But the thing that stood out to us is the extent to which people in these places also maintain a sense of meaning and have vibrant social lives well into their 80s or 90s. These places have networks of social support and purpose that permeate daily experience. They provide a model of how to live a rich life, as well as a long one.
LiveScience did a review of the show and reported that research supports Buettner's claim that strong social connections and close community ties promote longevity:
According to a 2010 meta-analysis published in the journal PLOS Medicine, individuals with stronger social relationships are 50% more likely to live longer than those who lack them. This was calculated as an odds ratio (OR) — the ratio of the chances of an event happening in one group to the chances of the same event happening in the second group. Put another way, an OR of 1.5 means that by the time half of a hypothetical sample of 100 people has died, there will be five more people alive with stronger social relationships than people with weaker social relationships.
The strongest association was found for social integration — a measure of one's engagement in their community. These results were consistent regardless of age, sex, health status or cause of death.
Meaning and relationships are, of course, the same things that give people joy and happiness. One of our favorite analyses on the power of social connection comes from economists:
When economists put a price tag on our relationships, we get a concrete sense of just how valuable our social connections are—and how devastating it is when they are broken. If you volunteer at least once a week, the increase to your happiness is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. If you have a friend that you see on most days, it’s like earning $100,000 more each year. Simply seeing your neighbors on a regular basis gets you $60,000 a year more. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie—here, in the case of getting divorced—it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.
This is why having a good friend at work often plays a much greater role in our happiness than a fat raise. So if you have a job where you cherish your colleagues or live in a place where you feel connected to your neighbors, think twice before leaving!
Humans evolved in small groups where we relied on social connection to meet our basic needs. We are often happiest when we are part of groups or relationships that fulfill our needs for belonging.
Of course, this is in stark contrast to the individualistic and insular direction that we have taken as a society. A few months ago, the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, called attention to the public healthy crisis of loneliness, isolation, and a lack of connection. Even before the onset of COVID-19, half of Americans were experiencing loneliness and the problem has only gotten worse.
This disconnection affects our mental, physical, and societal health. “In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.” The physical health consequences of poor social connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults, and increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%!
What is to blame?
While there are numerous factors driving the pandemic of loneliness, we think that societal individualism likely plays a role. Individualism reflects the extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes—and this tendency strongest is western countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands.
The rise of technology—like the internet and smart phones—often serves to foster even greater levels of individualism in society. This is also why each generation tends to be more individualistic than the one that preceded it.
Although individualism affords the freedom of expression and individual rights that we deeply cherish, it often comes with a set of tradeoffs that have serious consequences for our physical and mental well being.
This is why shows like Secrets of the Blue Zones offer an alternative perspective on how we might approach life. Building a sense of connection with a community comes with long term benefits for our health and happiness, even as it also comes with a set of social obligations to other members of our community or family.
In future newsletters we are going to explore some of these trade-offs and try to uncover how the cult of individuality that dominates modern life leads to unintended consequences and problems that would benefit from collective solutions. We hope you will stay tuned and, hopefully, share your own insights on some of these problems as well as potential solutions.
News and Updates
BOOK CLUB! A few weeks ago we announced that we plan to host a book club to celebrate the second anniversary of the publication of our book! We will be holding our first two virtual book clubs on that following dates:
Friday October 6th at 12pm EST
Tuesday October 10th at 8pm EST
We will email all our newsletter subscribers who have signed up for the book club with a link to join us. To sign up for the book club, you simply need to fill out this short form. We will then email you (keeping your email private) and send you an invitation to a meeting. The only requirement is that you get a copy of our book (either from your local bookstore, online, or the library), read it, and show up with a question or two you have about the book.
We will send out our free book to the first winner of our contest tomorrow.
Catch up on the last one…
In case you missed it, last newsletter we interviewed Lou Penner about racism in the health care system.
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