Nobody expects to get cancer when they’re young. But when I was 39 years old it knocked me on my butt. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I lived a relatively stress-free life. I was also strong and fit, able to run a mile in four and a half minutes. I could do 34 strict pull-ups and 100 pushups. After getting cancer, I quickly learned not to ask, “Why me?” Life can be cruel. Young children can get cancer. Much of life and death comes down to randomness.
We can’t control how long we live. But we can stack the odds in our favor. In 2020, science journalist Marta Zaraska wrote the book, Growing Young: How Friendships, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live To 100.Whether you’re a health nut or a couch potato, I highly recommend it. It’s an impressive research-filled book coupled with Zaraska’s easy-going style, humor and humble anecdotes. I only wish she had written this book 11 years ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer.
Almost everyone wants a long, healthy life. And marketers know that. They tempt us with antioxidant products, vitamins and pills that promise to delay the Grim Reaper. As a cancer survivor and health nut, I fell for several gimmicks. I popped more vitamins. I drank stuff that might curl your toes: several tablespoons of spirulina, mixed with water every morning and every night. This wasn’t one of those sweet, vegetable powdered-based drinks found in almost every health food store. It was pure pond scum. I figured the more hard core, the better.
Not everything I changed about my life was based on bogus science. I cut sugar from my diet, began to drink green tea, eliminated red meat, boosted my intake of green, leafy vegetables and increased how much I slept each night. While these changes can boost longevity, Zaraska says there’s something far more effective that isn’t sold in a store: our friendships and connections with other people. As isolated variables, these beat diet and exercise.
In fact, people can be slightly obese, but if they have strong connections with family, friends and community, they have higher odds of living longer than elite athletes who lack these connections. She tells the story of the small Pennsylvania town of Roseto. In 1960, it was a medical marvel. Heart disease was almost non-existent. Mortality rates were about 35 percent lower in Roseto than in other neighboring towns. Research pointed to the community’s strong social fabric. They often cooked and celebrated together. They might have had more civic clubs and social organizations per capita than anywhere else in the United States (22 in a town of just 2000 people). They commonly lived in modest, multi-generational homes where grandparents and grandchildren were under the same roof. People also wandered in and out of each other’s homes as if the community were one giant family.
However, Roseto began to change. Young people, in search of the American Dream, bought larger houses, further away from the town nucleus. They started to drive more and walk less. And mortality rates soared.
In Growing Young, Marta Zaraska references the so-called Blue Zones where people live unusually long lives. They include Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California. Their community social fabrics are much like Roseto’s…at least, they’re much like Roseto used to be.
Zaraska’s book is even more important in the shadow of the pandemic. To fight COVID-19, we pulled away from each other. For example, I haven’t hugged my parents, my brother, my sisters or any of their children for almost a year. I haven’t shaken hands with my friends or put my arms around their shoulders. No doubt, you can relate.
But we have some catching up to do. Perhaps we can’t yet hug our friends or our elderly parents. But as Zaraska says, “Loneliness kills–and not just because it can drive a person to suicide. It kills slowly by messing with your stress response and altering the functioning of your genes.”
That’s why, if we want to boost our longevity odds (for ourselves, our family and our friends) we can do something better than setting fitness goals. We can do something better than changing our diets, too. We can find ways to socialize more, even if we have to do it from a distance. That can start by spending more time outdoors. We can meet friends for walks, bicycle rides or rounds of golf– prioritizing people you know who live alone. We can organize or join community clean-up projects, tree-planting projects or any volunteer effort.
Marta Zaraska published her book in June 2020. While she was writing and researching, the world knew nothing about COVID-19. But I recommend you read it. It could increase your odds of living longer while boosting the longevity of friends and family in your circle. No vitamin, pill or spirulina powder would have the same effect.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas