As long as humans live, the search for longevity continues. We want to live longer, healthier, and feel better until the very end. The good news is, we are well on our way to achieving that. In just the early 19th century the average life expectancy in Europe was about 40 years, today in the U.S. and other first-world countries, it is pushing past late 80s.
Even better and perhaps a bit overwhelming news is that there may not even be a limit of how long we can live, the newest research suggests.
In 2016, researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine set the bar at 115 years of life, even though the oldest confirmed person to live was Jeanne Calment of France who passed at 122 years and 164 days (unconfirmed there was also Antisa Khvichava in Georgia who died at the age of 132 and Mbah Ghoto in Indonesia who died at the age of 146 — at least that’s what the local authorities claimed).
Yet another study published in Nature challenged the 115-years belief, claiming that the average life spans will continue to increase and that any conclusions about an age limit comes from still limited available data.
While there are conflicting conclusions of the same existing current data, scientists point out that we do not yet know everything there is to know about a human body to draw conclusions, after all, even living to 100 years would seem like an unreachable goal back in the day.
“Three hundred years ago, many people lived only short lives. If we would have told them that one day most humans might live up to 100, they would have said we were crazy,” said Siegfried Hekimi, co-author of the study.
But even living to 100 is not yet achievable for many. What we do know is that while genetics play a role, they are responsible for about 25% of longevity, the rest, 75% is due to lifestyle. Researchers from different fields are studying the current living population and their lifestyles to bring us closer to some answers about what is it that makes us live longer, and what kills us faster.
Psychologist Susan Pinker, the author of “The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier” set out to find out: “What are the main predictors of a long life?”
What she knew before going into is is that people live longer in the Blue Zones, and that on average, women throughout the world live longer than men. What she found is that the two may be connected.
Why Women Live Longer and The Clue to Longevity
Women live longer than men in most parts of the world…except for the Blue Zones. Why? Because they prioritize face-to-face interactions with their friends more than men, Pinker discovered.
In the Blue Zones, however, everyone lives longer, because everyone has more social interactions, not just women. For example, one location in a Blue Zone is a village of Villagrande in Sardinia, Italy is an incredibly dense place with not much personal space, but it was made to be this way. The social cohesion of the village defines this place. While lack of alone time may seem daunting to us, self-proclaimed independent residents of more socially separated places, people in Villagrande have no opportunity for loneliness, and that provides protection against most diseases, studies show.
As so much research has now shown: loneliness kills (even the former Surgeon General warned that loneliness is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!) It wreaks a havoc on a person’s mental, emotional, and physical health.
People in Villagrande and other Blue Zone places do not have this problem. Meanwhile, in many other places in the world, social isolation is a real health epidemic around. Today in the U.S., one-third of people say they have only two or fewer people they are close to, who they can trust and lean on.
Pinker found that statistically each of us needs at least three very close and stable connections to feel socially fulfilled.
This is vital because social connection may very well be the main thing that matters when it comes to living long. Even being positive may not be as necessary.
In Villagrande, one of the centenarians is a 101-year-old Giovanni Corrias, and he is very grumpy, as Pinker describes him. Yet he has people around him who love him and that has contributed to his longevity. He is surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, and other village residents. He is never alone. This does not happen in most places in the world.
Another lifestyle aspect that is not as important as one might think? Diet.
Diet is not a huge factor in Pinker’s observation. Another village resident, a 100-year-old Zia Teresa cooks a giant ravioli-like dish every Sunday with her daughter and shares with dozens of her neighbors and friends.
“…That’s when I discovered a low-fat, gluten-free diet is not what it takes to live to 100 in the blue zone,” said Pinker after learning the recipe from Zia.
It is important to note that diet does play a role for many of us who do not live in the Blue Zones. Blue Zone diets tend to be unprocessed, home cooked, made with non-GMO produce grown without pesticides, and free range meat raised without antibiotics. If everyone ate this way in the U.S., health would be much better.
But perhaps eating healthy prevents disease, but still does not necessarily provide that final push forward towards real, pure health and longevity. The only thing that does is social connections.
Top Two Predictors of Longevity Have to Do with Your Social Ties
Pinker wanted to check the theory about social connections and health further outside the blue zone village. So she studied research done by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a researcher at Brigham Young University. Holt-Lunstad conducted a series of studies on thousands of people. She looked at their whole lifestyles: diet, exercise, marital status, if they smoked or drank, and how they took care of their health.
She recorded all the information and then waited 7 years to see how the health of all of these people would change.
Her question was: “What reduced chances of dying the most?”
Her findings aligned with what Pinker saw looking at the Blue Zones — longevity had nothing to do with diet and exercise and everything to do with your social life.
What she found almost completely unimportant was clean air and treating hypertension with medications. (This is likely not true for people living in truly polluted areas, but for most of us, having a cleaner air does not provide much difference, the study showed).
Mostly unimportant was being thin, exercising, taking care of the heart, and the flu prevention.
What the studies found to be important when it comes to lifestyle choices was quitting drinking alcohol and smoking. Smoking was rated to be much more damaging to health than drinking, but both made it to the top four lifestyle choices that have the biggest impact on health.
The top two predictors of living a long time were found to be close relationships and social integration.
Having a few close people and nurturing those relationships is a big factor of how long you will leave. Pinker defines these relationships as:
“These are the people who you can call for a loan if you need money suddenly, who will call the doctor if you’re not feeling well, or who will take you to the hospital, or who would sit with you if you’re having an existential crisis, if you’re in despair.”
The second predictor, social integration, means how many people you interact with throughout the day. This includes everyone you meet. Do you talk to your local barista as you get your daily coffee? Your accountant? Your neighbors? All of these seemingly small interactions leave a huge positive mark on your well-being, both short-term and long-term.
Why Online Interactions Are Not The Same Thing
Every year, we spend more and more hours online — a total of 10 hours starting at a screen each day to be exact (one hour more than just a year ago). Internet can be a great way to keep in touch with people who are traveling, with family members who are far away, and to connect with like-minded people who may not live in the same place as you. Yet, when it comes to health, both mental and physical, it can never replace face-to-face interaction.
During a face-to-face conversation or even spending time in the same room with people you know, neurotransmitters are released (brain chemicals that communicate with the whole body), which lower the cortisol or stress levels in the body therefore protecting from illnesses today and in the future. Simply making eye contact, shaking hands, and high-fiving someone is enough to release oxytocin, a happiness hormone, and as dopamine is generated, a neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s pleasure center, and the person then feels naturally high.
Low levels of dopamine levels can lead to lack of energy, addictions, and mood disorders. Therefore releasing dopamine by interacting with others is a way to keep a good mental state.
“…In person friendships create a biological force field against disease and decline,” Pinker said.
To confirm the difference between face-to-face versus Internet interactions a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland Elizabeth Redcay looked at what is going on in people’s brains by using an MRI scanner.
During a real interaction, parts of the brain light up that are associated with attention and social intelligence. These areas are not nearly as engaged during an online interaction.
Even using FaceTime, Skype, or any other video chatting apps does not have the same effect. One of the huge differences is that by looking at the screen, you are not actually looking at the other person’s eyes (a small gesture that releases dopamine). Pinker said that perhaps in a distant future, technology can cross that barrier and attempt to imitate real interactions. But there is just no way to tell if it will ever be able to. Right now, it is important to remember that nothing can replace face-to-face interactions.
“We can do something about this [issue]…It’s a biological imperative to know we belong…Building in-person interaction into our cities, into our workplaces, into our agendas bolsters the immune system, sends feel-good hormones surging through the bloodstream and brain and helps us live longer. I call this building your village, and building it and sustaining it is a matter of life and death,” Pinker said.
To build this sense of belonging, it is vital to:
- Prioritize face-to-face relationships
- Value healthy relationships and keep building them
- Have at least three close, stable friendships
- Make an effort to interact with people we see on a daily basis
- Reach out to meet your neigbors, those you live next to and those you work near
Watch part of Pinker’s TED Talk below and full talk here:
What does it take to live for 100 years? These are the surprising predictors of a long, healthy life.Watch the full TED Talk here: http://t.ted.com/nMk9fKb
Posted by TED on Wednesday, January 17, 2018