The Joy of Growing Young
Last week, my cousin and I were musing about how this ‘time-out’ has increased our desire to create a more humble, relaxed life by the sea – perhaps in one of the Blue Zones. These are handful of communities across the globe where the majority of people live to be (at least) 100, with sanity and good health intact. It is this type of longevity that science journalist, Marta Zaraska set out to investigate in her book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You live to 100.
While the title sums up her conclusions pretty well, Zaraska does a deep dive into study, after study – including some of the Blue Zone examples – explaining the minutae of our bio-mechanics to show how curating our environment, and changing certain behaviours, can help us age with vitality and joy. After all, as the The Danish Twin Study established in 1996, only about a fifth of the average life span is dictated by genes, whereas the other 80% is dictated by our lifestyle.
In Growing Young, she suggests that you should stop obsessing about your diet and, instead, hang out with people you care about because taking Vitamin C daily adds nothing to your life expectancy. While volunteering for a cause meaningful to you pips the Mediterranean diet to the post in the longevity race.
Like Dan Beuttner, founder of the Blue Zones Project discovered in 2004, diet may play an important role, but moving gently, consistently and continuously; combatting stress; and connecting with others are far more crucial to a long and happy life. Zaraska, concurs and adds that as long as you are being social and mindful, being a little overweight can actually prolong your life. In Growing Young, she takes this argument further by highlighting the importance of our relationships to our longevity.
Starting with our mind body-connection, Zaraska says, what we obsess over, plus negative thinking can have an impact on our digestion, mental health, and developing diseases of chronic inflammation. All because, ‘the links between psyche, depression and inflammation are complicated and bidirectional.’ This is where mindfulness and optimism can make a difference. Other offenders to our longevity are – surprise, surprise – regularly eating red meat, being obese, followed by loneliness, pessimism, unhappiness and neuroticism. For example, loneliness makes one acutely aware of negative social signals, obsessive about social threats and prone to withdrawal and distrust. This then creates an uphill battle to connect – all due to a primitive biological response. Knowing this, can help us focus on developing empathy, kindness, agreeableness, and so on, which will enable the development of good relationships, to get us out of the loneliness trap.
On a more positive note, having at least three friends that you can depend on in a time of need can reduce your morbidity by 35%. Even if you are more of a social butterfly, having a wide friendship group increases the diversity of microbes in your gut flora (you get exposed to friends’ microbes and they ends up in your gut; slightly gross but effective), boosting your immunity, and so this large network of casual relationships is better for longevity than exercising regularly. And if you combine at least four positive lifestyle factors like being physically active and eating a Mediterranean diet (including 6+ fruits and vegetables daily) – along with having a purpose in life, being socially extroverted, and caring for others – it can cut your morbidity by a whopping two-thirds.
While the book is repetitive in driving home its conclusions, I found the biological explanations helpful and some of the quirky studies fascinating. So, if you want to know why voodoo curses can literally make us drop dead; why you shouldn’t watch horror movies when you have the flu; and why craving a cup of tea can be a sign that you are lonely, this is a book worth checking out… at least until you can move to your island in the sun.
Alexia Economou is a design and culture journalist, and regular TNMA contributor @thedesignfeedTW