Thursday, December 3, 2020

Can Making Your Social Life A Priority Boost Your Health And Longevity? Author Marta Zaraska Says Yes.

YouAreUNLTD caught up with Canadian writer and author Marta Zaraska to talk about her new book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100. She did a deep dive into the research about how being and staying connected. The results were surprising and well worth understanding. This book reveals so much and is sure to change the way you think about relationships and socializing.

Author Marta Zaraska. Photo: Anka Górajka.

What inspired you to write your new book, Growing Young?

It all started with one scientific paper I stumbled upon a few years back while writing one of my articles. It was a large meta-analysis of studies that compared different behaviors and how they impact our health and longevity – from the classics such as diet and exercise to far less obvious things like marital status, living alone, or social integration. What’s more, the scientists put everything very conveniently into one table with all the numbers right out there. And I could see clearly that things such as social integration – so how much you feel you have friends and family you can count on and who can count on you – may be more important to longevity than physical activity, your BMI, or even smoking 15 cigarettes a day! This really got me thinking and I started to explore this topic more. And I’ve discovered this was a very well established research area that somehow didn’t make it to mass media. A few years, dozens of interviews with scientists and over 600 research papers later, I had enough material to write the book. And change the way I live my life, too.

You wrote this pre-COVID-19. What has that taught us about having a social network of friends and family?

I did write Growing Young pre-COVID, but when the virus struck (and it did strike my region in France particularly hard), I went back to the book myself and re-discovered some studies I describe there – in particular those on how social isolation impacts our immune system and anti-viral response. Because it does impact it quite strongly, unfortunately. Basically, the more socially isolated we are, the more susceptible we become to viruses, and less responsive to vaccination. And here I was, forbidden to meet anyone outside of our household and forbidden to venture out for walks more than 0.6 miles from home, hoping that my immune system would be strong enough in case I did come across COVID-19. Of course, I did follow all the rules strictly. We all had to prevent an even worse epidemic. But I made sure to video call my friends and family as often as I could (studies show it’s better for you and your health than texting, for example), and to hug my husband and daughter a lot, and make sure we had time to talk to each other, eat all meals together at the table, and so on.

What’s the greatest misconception around the role of socializing?

That it is something we do only for fun in our “spare time.” But socializing should be a priority, not just a spare-time thing. Maybe one day we will see official daily recommendations for socializing? Maybe “meet friends at least once per week” the way we now are recommended to “eat 7 to 10 servings” of fruits and vegetables per day? We certainly should.  For women, rarely meeting friends can mean almost two and a half times the risk of premature death!

The focus on longevity has primarily been on physical health. Why has research on the role of psychological health lagged so far behind? Why are we seeing a shift now?

You can certainly see some shifts. In 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a “minister for loneliness” and Manitoba now has a minister responsible for helping seniors stay socially engaged. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, it has been calculated that the topmost neurotic people cost the country over $1.3 billion per year per million inhabitants in health services, out-of-pocket costs, and production losses.
I believe, however, that there are three main reasons why we still haven’t fully recognized the importance of our social lives and mental attitudes for health. For one, in our culture, we have a strong preference for things that are easily quantifiable. Take that pill, walk so many steps, eat so many grams of leafy greens per day. That’s easy. You can’t count your friendship quality or your optimism in grams per day, and we, Westerners, don’t like that.
Two, some people may think that saying that volunteering, kindness, or community have an impact on our diabetes risk or cardiovascular health is just new-agey stuff. But there is nothing new-agey about it. It’s all strictly based in our physiology. It’s based on our social hormones, such as oxytocin or serotonin, our stress regulation systems such as the hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal axis, our vagus nerve, or the trillions of microbes that reside in our guts.
And three, there is the issue of money. There are some very strong monetary incentives to have people obsess about fad diets, miracle foods, dietary supplements, and exercise gadgets. Toronto Star once calculated that those Canadians who take supplements – and 73 percent do – may be spending over $800 per year on all the vitamins and herbal products they pop. Going for a walk with your friends or being kind to your neighbours is free. No one can make money on it, so there are no ads, no marketing, no PR.

How has your research impacted how you live your life? Any new habits that you’ve adopted?

I’m certainly obsessing less about my diet — although our family still eats very healthy. But it’s not kale salads with chia seeds, just simple healthy meals with basic vegetables such as carrots or cauliflower. I spend less time and money on buying organics, and I don’t take any supplements. I’m still quite sporty. My family loves hiking and biking and I run regularly. For instance, I decided to skip the latest half-marathon I was thinking of preparing for because I saw that it would take too much time away from my “couple’s” time with my husband. I also try to volunteer more in my community and I treat letting other cars ahead of me in traffic as healthy behaviour. Same for the time I spend petting my elderly cocker spaniel. (t gives both me and the dog a healthy oxytocin boost.)

You looked at social connectivity on a global level. Which country (or countries) do you think really understand the importance of it well and why?

It’s extremely hard to compare countries and there is no single one that got everything “right.” But there are indeed differences. Some countries, for example, are more neurotic than others, and we know that neuroticism is bad for your health (on a biological level, not just because it’s more likely to lead to suicide). Among the most neurotic countries are Greece followed by Russia, and the least neurotic seems to be Israel, with the US and Canada hovering in the middle.
Japan, a country I visited while researching my book, certainly is a place where people do get a lot of this right. They even have a saying, yamai wa ki kara—“sickness and health start with the mind.” They believe – correctly –  in the power of ikigai, or meaning in life, for health, and are very involved in their communities. It’s no surprise then, that the Japanese are the longest-lived people on the planet.

How’s Canada doing on that front?

Not best, I’m afraid. We’ve certainly lost quite a lot of our social capital. One in five Canadians claims to be lonely. And that number soars to 50 percent among seniors over the age of 80. Seventy percent of Canadians admit to watching TV while eating, instead of having mindful conversations with their family. In urban Ontario, only 17 percent of people report a very strong sense of belonging to their community, and in the cities of Alberta and Quebec, that number is as low as 13 percent. I could go on. But there are some hopeful initiatives, too. I’ve met some amazing people, for example, who started an initiative called Roots of Empathy. It’s a Canadian charity that teaches children in schools and childcare centres around the world to be more empathetic. And it works!

What’s the main message you are hoping readers will take from Growing Young?

Be social, care for others, enjoy life. Growing as a person can help you grow healthier. With more happiness as a side effect.

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Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist based in Paris, Ontario, who has contributed to many leading media outlets, from the Washington Post to Canadian Living.