My grandmother lived to be 94. Outside of a weekly lunch and trip to the hair salon, plus the occasional dinner with family, my grandmother, by her own choice, lived a very solitary life. In a TED Talk this year, psychologist Susan Pinker predicted that my grandmother, and seniors like her, could live even longer if they had more social interaction.
Pinker reached these conclusions by travelling to Sardinia, one of the five Blue Zones or places in the world where people live the longest. In fact, this island has ten times more centenarians than anywhere in North America.
There, Pinker observed a community so densely populated that people were forced to cross paths with great frequency, giving them no choice but to become interconnected and involved in one another’s lives. But it was more than that. In this tight-knit society, the older members were also surrounded by extended family and supported—and cherished—by everyone around them.
Pinker’s empirical data is supported by research conducted by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University in 2010. In her studies of tens of thousands of middle-aged Americans, Holt-Lunstad found that the absence of close relationships and social interaction, in general, ranked higher in predicting mortality than usual suspects like drinking, smoking, being overweight and not exercising. That connectedness included everything from close relationships with family and friends to simply chatting with the teller at the bank.
Could this research also explain why women tend to live longer than men? Pinker believed so. Because women cultivate more face-to-face relationships than their male counterparts and just enjoy talking more, those “girls nights out,” book clubs and even casual conversations in the grocery store could be doing more than drawing them closer to their friends and helping them make new ones. This bonding could also be protecting women from disease and decline.
The takeaway of these findings is simple: meet that friend for lunch, visit your mother/son/aunt and talk to the person beside you in the elevator. It could help you live longer!