Would you really like to live past 100? I’m sure for many we would like to live as long as we can with the proviso that we have quality of life.
In a previous interview with Jenny Leigh Hodgsins from Creative Memorial Planning . Jenny and I discussed Creative Memorials and environmentally friendly options for burial. This was for the Conversations with Women Living Well After 50 series so if you missed the Youtube video you can watch it HERE.
I was recently sent a copy of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help you Live to 100 by best selling author and science writer, Marta Zaraska. Although I found the scientific terminology to be heavy going at times, the book is “a research-driven case for why optimism, kindness, and strong social networks will keep us living longer than any fitness tracker or superfood.
I was curios to meet Marta and interview her to learn more about her research, the mind-body connection and what social hormones are. Marta also explains why she feels that although exercise and diet are important they matter less. I was interested to hear her answer knowing that my background is in health and wellness and believe the foundations of nutrition and exercise are vital for healthy living.
Growing Young – 5 tips for living longer
The idea of the ‘Fountain of Youth’ appeals to many. Of course, we all want to live as long as we can. Why did you decide to research and write the book ‘”Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100″?
It came quite naturally out of my work as a science journalist. For many years I’ve been writing for the Washington Post, Scientific American and many other publications about health and nutrition, and I was myself very much into healthy living, too. I did all the usual: healthy diets, superfoods, exercise (with apps and gadgets and whatnot) — but recently I started coming across research that was pointing in a direction I didn’t consider before, both professionally and privately.
It showed that so-called soft drivers of longevity, such as friendship, community, kindness, optimism, might be at least as important to health as diet or exercise, if not more. I got intrigued.
After reading over 600 research papers on this and talking to dozens of scientists, I had enough material to write Growing Young, and to change my own life, too. I discovered, for instance, that while building a strong support network of family and friends lowers mortality risk by about 45 per cent, exercise, on the other hand, can lower that risk by 23 to 33 per cent. And I also learned plenty practical tips, from the importance of not rolling your eyes at your significant other to how holding a hot cup of tea can make you feel less lonely, which comes in very handy in covid times.
You travelled the world for your research. What was the most interesting interview that you conducted?
It’s hard to pick! I had so much fun doing research for this book, which took me from catching wild mice in the forests of Oxfordshire to visiting a “cuddling” salon in Warsaw, Poland.
But if I really had to choose, I think I’d say talking to octogenarians and centenarians in Japan — after all, the Japanese nation is currently the longest-lived on the planet and people there have often a very different perspective on what it means to live a healthy life.
For example, you may soon learn that it’s not longer Okinawa that is the longevity centre of Japan (that’s old news), now it’s the Nagano prefecture. And diet is not a big issue there. According to health authorities of Nagano among the topmost reasons for why people there live so long (and in one village I’ve visited the average lifespan for men is 82.2 years – six years longer than in US), is something they call ikigai. Ikigai roughly translates to “the reason for living” and research confirms that having it can really boost health.
One study that followed over 70,000 Japanese people for about 12 years found that those who said they had ikigai had a 26% lower risk of death for men and 33% for women — that’s comparable to the effects of following the famed Mediterranean diet.
How does mind-body connection affect our longevity?
When people hear about “Growing Young” they sometimes assume that it’s all some new-agey stuff, while in fact connections between our minds and our social lives are very much physiological, and very well researched by science. After all we are social apes, just like our cousins chimpanzees, and we’ve evolved to be surrounded by others — that’s when we function the best.
As such, we have plenty of interconnected systems that link our emotional and social life with our physical health — from social hormones such as oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin and endorphins to the vagus nerve and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis which regulates stress.
What are social hormones and how do they affect our relationships and longevity?
These so-called social hormones or social neuropeptides are the reason why being neighbourly or having a happy marriage may add years to your lifespan. Some researchers even argue that social hormones have actually made us human.These are the hormones that are on one hand connected to how we live our lives in relation to others, and on the other with our physiology and health.
Consider serotonin, for instance, which on one hand can make us more friendly and better at cooperating with other people, and on the other hand it can lower the risk of high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, improve vascular tone and temperature regulation. In mice, serotonin can even help regenerate the liver. Oxytocin, the famed “love hormone”, which you get for instance by hugging others or by looking into their eyes, has anti-inflammatory properties, reduces pain, and helps bone growth, potentially preventing osteoporosis.
You suggest that diet and exercise are important but matter less. What do you mean by that statement?
It’s just the question of numbers. Consider that while eating six servings of fruit and veg per day can cut the danger of dying early by 26 per cent, a happy romantic relationship can lower it by 49 percent. What’s more, we often obsess too much over fad diets and exercise routines, we spend too much time reading about new superfoods, supplements and so on and too much money on exercise gadgets and apps, while not enough on our friendships, on getting to know our neighbors or helping others.
For example, while volunteering can reduce mortality risk by 22 to 44 percent, studies show that omega-3 fatty acids have no impact on your mortality risk whatsoever.Or take vitamins. In a study of over eighty thousand American physicians, those who took multivitamin pills had a 7 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who didn’t go for such supplements.
What are your top 5 tips for living a longer and fulfilled life?
Have a happy (or happy enough) romantic relationships. That’s definitely number one. And I know it’s often easier said than done, but how much time do we really invest in our relationships? I know I’ve been guilty of this myself – spending more time reading about diets and nutritional fads than on cultivating my marriage. And there are sometimes simple tricks to boost that relationship (one of my favourites — going together to amusement parks). Two — friendships. Three — conscientious personality, so being the kind of person that keep the office desk tidy and shows up on time for meetings. And yes, personality can be changed, it can actually be worked on in a similar way in which you can work on your abdominal muscles. Four – optimism, and five — volunteering and kindness.
Would you like to live to 100 or longer?
Of course! People often tell me, “but I don’t want to live to a 100, I don’t want to be sick and infirm for years”. That’s a common misconception. In fact, while a typical person who lives to be 80 or so will spend 18 percent of their time on Earth ridden by disease, for super-centenarians, so those who live 110 plus, that’s just 5 percent. One out of 10 super-centenarians escapes disease until 3 last month of life only! Just imagine, you live 110 years and are only infirm for 3 months! In general, science shows that the healthier you are the longer you will live and the longer you will stay disease-free.
What does being a Woman Living Well Mean to you?
It means living kindly. Being focused more outwards, towards others, than inwards. I have a motto glued to the wall in my office: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” (It’s by Nietzsche). For me, my “why” is to do my modest share in preventing catastrophic climate change so that my child, and all other young people, can still enjoy our beautiful planet in the future in a relatively unchanged state. . Having a purpose not only makes it easier to make it through difficult times (like we have now), but also likely keeps me healthier.
Marta Zaraska is a Canadian science journalist. She has written for the Washington Post, Scientific American, New Scientist, The Atlantic, among others. She is the author of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, published in June by Penguin Random House, and endorsed by Adam Grant, Dan Buettner, Emeran Mayer, and others.
Marta is also the author of “Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession With Meat” (Basic Books, 2016) http://www.MeathookedTheBook.com