The real secret to living longer

Eat well, exercise, get eight hours of sleep: these are all pillars of good health that contribute to a long, healthy life – as are going easy on the drink, not smoking and staying away from drugs (although, everything in moderation, I say!).

Maintaining this kind of lifestyle can be a challenge. Always having to watch what you eat, going to bed at a respectable hour each night, drinking the recommended litres of water every day, and avoiding alcohol, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll just seems so bland, and certainly not a lot of fun.

But there is a way to have your cake and eat it too. A way that is just as important as all those ‘regular’ health rules, and a lot more fun.

Researchers from Harvard University have found that the quality of your social life has as much bearing on your overall health as your diet and exercise levels.

By surrounding yourself with good people, you will live longer.

Over a period of 75 years, Harvard researchers conducted the Grant & Glueck studies of the same 600 plus people throughout their lifetimes to determine what gives them a long, happy life.

Most of the study participants are now in their 80s and 90s, and they have exhibited clear patterns for what is conducive to being happy and healthy – high quality relationships.

“Relationships are super important; they’re right up there alongside not smoking, exercise, diet, not abusing drugs,” said lead researcher Dr Robert Waldinger.

Solid social relationships not only boost your emotional wellbeing, but they also have a positive effect on your physical health.

“We began to realise that this is a real thing, that somehow relationships, the number of relationships you have, and the quality of the relationships, actually sort of gets into your body and makes a difference,” said Dr Waldinger.”If you have someone who is a really good listener and you just need to blow off steam about your day, then you can actually feel your body calm down a lot of times.”

Venting your feelings helps the body to regulate its stress hormones. Holding in the stress has a negative effect on a person’s internal chemistry. High stress hormones can cause inflammation and other diseases.

“People who have bad relationships, who have very stressful lives without the ability to calm down, are chronically in a kind of low-level fight-or-flight response. And that changes your body chemistry,” said Dr Waldinger.

“Normally, your blood will fight off infections and that kind of stuff, but chronic inflammation is bad for you.”

And it’s not just romantic partners who can improve your health. Quality friendships and close associations with your relatives throughout your life will also do you good.

“What the research shows is that it’s across all ages. It’s literally from the time you’re a newborn until the time you die,” he says. The quality of parenting that newborns receive, for example, impacts them throughout their entire lives. Similarly, elderly patients who receive good hospice care tend to be happier and live longer,” said Dr Waldinger.

So, even though there is no clear benchmark for how important personal relationships are to your health compared to diet, sleep and exercise, one thing is obvious: if you want to live a long and healthy life, your social life requires just as much attention.

“It doesn’t mean that one [healthy habit] replaces the other, but they all kind of work together,” Dr Waldinger emphasises. “So rather than figuring out which one is more important, it’s figuring out what’s a really good combination. And maybe a combination where the sum of the parts is bigger than the individual parts.”

So, is it time you booked in a date with your mates?

Read more about the Grant and Glueck Study

Related articles:
Why the rich live longer
Want a longer life? Join the club
Scientists discover anti-ageing pill

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Publisher of YourLifeChoices – Australia's most-trusted and longest-running retirement website. A trusted voice on Australia's retirement landscape, including retirement income and planning, government entitlements, lifestyle and news and information relevant to Australians over 50. Leon has worked in publishing for more than 25 years and is also a travel writer and editor, graphic designer and photographer.

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