How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100
Penguin Random House (Canada/US), May 5th, 2020
Robinson / Little, Brown (UK), May 7th, 2020
A research-driven case for why optimism, kindness, and strong social networks will keep us living longer than any fitness tracker or superfood
What to do to live long? From fountain-searching Ponce de Leon to pill-popping Silicon valley techies humanity has been trying to pinpoint the answer for centuries, often fixating on all the wrong things: miracle diets, miracle foods, miracle supplements. We skip gluten and invest in exercise gadgets. We swallow vitamins. We obsess about BMI. Yet even though healthy nutrition and physical activity are indeed important for health, there are things that can weight on our centenarian potential even more, things that we all too often sacrifice while we chase fad diets and the newest cardio workouts. Friendships. Purpose in life. Empathy. Kindness. Science shows that these "soft" health drivers are often more powerful than diet and exercise.
Consider the numbers: Studies show that building a strong support network of family and friends lowers mortality risk by about 45 percent. Exercise, on the other hand, can lower that risk by 23 to 33 percent. Eating six servings of fruits and veggies per day can cut the danger of dying early by 26 percent, while following the Mediterranean diet by 21 percent. For volunteering, it's 22 to 44 percent. Of course, such numbers should be taken with caution, coming as they are from studies with varying methodology and as such not straightforward to compare, but they do underline some important general trends.
We, humans, are social apes. Over the course of evolution we've developed several intertwined systems that regulate our social lives on one hand and our physiology on the other. The amygdala and the insula in the brain, the social hormones oxytocin and serotonin, the vagus nerve, the HPA stress axis -- all these link our bodies and our minds, contributing to our centenarian potential. We feel safe when we are surrounded by friendly others. The nervous system, the gastrointestinal system, the immune system -- all these function properly when the tribe is there for us and when we are there for the tribe. Involved in a group, we flourish.
Marta Zaraska based Growing Young on hundreds of research papers and on interviews with dozens of scientists from fields as diverse as molecular biochemistry, epidemiology, neuroscience, Asian studies, cyber psychology, marketing and zoology. The book's research took her to rather unexpected places, too: catching wild mice in the woods of central England (to check how relationships impact gut microbiota), chatting about Zulu dancing with professor Robin Dunbar in his Hogwarts-like office at Oxford, sipping super-smoothies at a longevity bootcamp in Portugal and arranging flowers with octagenarians in Japan. In the end, all the studies, the interviews and the travels brought her to a simple conclusion: self-improvement, commitment to growing as a person, can also help us grow younger. To Michael Pollan's famous statement on health: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," she now adds: "Be social, care for others, enjoy life."