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Genetics and lifestyle are among the most studied factors in ageing science, but the list of longevity predictors is vast. One consistent finding in this area of research is the importance of good relationships to physical and mental well-being. The researchers in one decade-long study, believe interpersonal interconnectedness may offset the negative effects of stressors like anxiety.
In 1938, researchers at Harvard gathered medical records from 724 individuals to identify predictors of health span in later years.
The research project was one of the most thorough analyses of physical and mental well-being among adults.
Participants answered questions about their lives at two-year intervals, which revealed that positive relationships were paramount for living a long and happy life.
Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, said the findings came as a surprise.
The research told Harvard Gazette: “We started wondering whether we could look back at our participants’ lives in middle age and see what the biggest predictors were of who’s going to be happy and healthy by age 80.
“We thought that cholesterol level of blood pressure at age 50 would be more important. They were not.
“It was satisfaction in their relationships, particularly in their marriages that was the best predictor of a happy and healthy life.”
Waldinger suspects that loneliness operates through a mechanism of chronic stress, meaning the body frequently remains in a fight or flight mode.
In other words, there may be higher levels of circulating stress hormones and inflammation in the body, which predate several chronic diseases.
These findings are in line with other studies that have suggested that loneliness due to social isolation could raise the risk of dementia by 50 percent.
“Many people feel chronically unsafe when they are lonely. If you’re alone and you’re content, that’s different,” explains Mr Waldinger.
“But if you are alone and feel stressed and lonely, that’s part of what breaks down your health. That’s why we think loneliness is as dangerous to your health as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese.”
The researcher gleaned from his research that social fitness exists not only within the parameters of a romantic relationship, but comprises several other social connections too.
It appears good relationships with parents, siblings, neighbours, coworkers and casual acquaintances are equally important.
“If we have pleasant connections with those people, those also contribute to our well-being,” noted Waldinger.
Past research has suggested that social connectedness reaped from group sports may also benefit overall well-being.
In 2018, a study conducted by Saint Luke’s Health Centre in Kansas City, United States, showed that social sports like tennis and badminton could boost longevity more than other sports.
The findings suggested sports like tennis and badminton may add up to 10 years to a person’s life.
The study carried out on 8,577 people in Copenhagen adds to the line of evidence that the social aspect of daily activities plays the biggest role in improving the health span of people.
The general consensus is that supportive relationships not only act as a buffer against adversity but enable people to learn, grow and cultivate new talents.
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