This week SMART Living 365 is pleased to introduce you to Donna from Retirement Reflections as guest blogger while I am traveling. I have been reading Donna’s blog for nearly two years and believe she offers ideas that are inspiring, practical and SMART regardless of whether you are retired or not. Thank you, Donna, for filling in and sharing your thoughts with us this week.
When cleaning out a box of old letters and memorabilia recently, I came across a few of my old school report cards. I smiled at the recurring comment, “Donna spends much time chatting with others.” This behavior was definitely in the “things that could be improved” category. What my teachers failed to add was “If Donna continues this behaviour…it could lengthen her life!”
Researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill combined data from 148 studies that looked at factors that lengthen our lives. Within this research, numerous lifestyle behaviors were examined and ranked based on their impact on longevity (diet, exercise, heart health, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, doctor visits, flu vaccines, air quality, etc.). Two factors were consistently found to impact health and longevity much more significantly than previously realized. One was close, dependable relationships with friends and family. The other was social integration.
Social integration can take on different meanings in different contexts. The definition used in this study was the amount of daily interaction with others, regardless of how strong or weak the bond. This interaction can be as casual as chatting with the cashier at a local grocery store. I was intrigued and wanted to know more.
In her Ted Talk, ”The Strongest Predictor of How Long You’ll Live,” Susan Pinker, Canadian psychologist and author of The Village Effect, referred to the above research. She also gave detailed examples of the powerful effects of social integration by sharing case studies of individual residents of Sardinia, Italy, a documented ‘Blue Zone.’ (Kathy has also written about Blue Zones before.) In alignment with the above researchers, Pinker found social integration to be an innate human behavior that is key to our longevity.
Neuroscientists repeatedly tell us that regular face to face human contact releases a multitude of neurotransmitters that lower stress levels, reduce pain and induce pleasure. Eye contact, handshakes and high fives all release oxytocin, which lowers cortisone levels. Dopamine is generated with each of these activities, all which add a positive lift.
Many lifestyle factors such as clean air, keeping hypertension in check, weight management and exercise were determined by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lead author on the Brigham Young/Chapel Hill Review, to have less weight than close relationships and social integration in terms of lifespan. However, such factors obviously should not be ignored and replaced by increased social interaction alone. Close family relationships, daily intersection with other villagers, laughing regularly with friends, and celebrating elders, are each believed to be major contributors to the longevity of residents in Sardinia. A lean, plant-based diet, walking five or more miles a day, a daily glass of red wine and regularly drinking goat’s milk have also been found to contribute to the long life of these Italian villagers. On top of this, genetics were deemed to contribute up to 25% of their increased life expectancy. This reinforces the concept that a variety of factors come into play regarding our mortality.
Studies detailing how we are impacted by social integration do not end with longevity. Researchers, including Holt-Lunstad, have also been examining the effect of social relationships on our mental and emotional health and well-being.
From my perspective, ‘Positive Aging’ is about engaging fully in life as we age. With Positive Aging we become informed and use that knowledge to take control and live our lives as richly and fully as possible.
Researchers confirm this by reporting that social support directly benefits psychological well-being and mental health. It can provide greater feelings of self-efficacy, higher levels of self-esteem and lower levels of depression and distress. Psychologists have also noted that social integration can encourage and model healthier behaviors, which may be as simple as eating breakfast or joining a friend’s walking group.
Further extolling the potential benefits of social integration, psychologists have also indicated that social relationships offer an opportunity to provide support to others, which can lead to increased feelings of independence and usefulness. Moreover, people who give support are often found to receive increased support, perpetuating a healthy giving-receiving cycle.
Like so many things of value, positive aging requires an active, ongoing practice. Too many of us know someone who was once socially and physically active. Bit by bit, without realizing it, that person began to put off activities and relationships for another day, eventually finding him/herself trapped by inactivity and loneliness. This pattern combined with declining health becomes a vicious circle.
I had initially planned to declutter several more sections of my crawl space and hang out on my computer for a while. I put both the boxes and my laptop aside, grabbed my coat and went out for a walk. A stop at my local coffee shop would be a nice addition to my morning..and you never know who I might meet there or along the way. At least I would stay in the habit of being active, putting myself out there and practicing a lifestyle philosophy in which I fully believe!
Okay your turn: Do you agree? Have you found it increasingly important to surround yourself with caring & close friends as you age? Please share your thoughts below and be sure & send Donna some appreciation for being a guest author here on SMART Living 365!
About Donna: Donna lived in Beijing, China for fourteen years. Leaving international life behind, she and her husband retired to Vancouver Island, Canada, in June 2015. To document this transition, Donna initiated ‘Retirement Reflections.’ Her favorite part of blogging is the interaction with others. You can connect with Donna in the comment section below, or via the following social media sites. She would love to hear from you.
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