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Make social connections that can help you live longer

Make social connections that can help you live longer

It’s pretty obvious that eating well and exercising help you live longer (for tips on how to improve both of those areas, check out the blogs from the first two weeks of back-to-health month).

But did you know that hanging out with friends can also improve life expectancy?

Scientists first started looking into this concept in the 1970s; in 1979, researchers published the results of a 9-year study that surveyed 6,928 adults in Alameda County, California. The research found that people with more social and community connections at the time of the first survey were less likely to have died during the nine years before the last follow-up. The researchers looked at four areas of social connection: marriage, close friends and family, religion and other groups or associations.

The decades of research since then have backed up those initial findings and people living in Blue Zones provide real-world proof.

No wonder social connectedness is considered one of the four pillars of healthy longevity.

So, how do you foster that? You might already have a jam-packed social calendar, but most of us could use some brushing up on our social skills after cutting back on gathering during quarantines and lockdowns. (Research is still out on how online and digital connections may differ from in-person connections.)

If you’re already part of a thriving social circle, great. Just make sure you’re an active participant. That doesn’t mean you have to host a dinner party for 20. It does mean you should pick up the phone and call the member of the group you haven’t seen in a while.  

The definition of “group” is intentionally broad: It could mean extended family, a faith community, an active neighborhood. It’s any group that comes together to celebrate each other’s joys and to support each other in times of challenges or sorrow. 

If you can’t think of any you belong to, think about what you’re interested in. Have a green thumb? Look into community gardens. Do you sing to yourself in the shower? Join a choir. If you’re a book worm, organize a discussion. And remember to check in on friends and relatives you suspect may be lonely.

By the way, it's not the number of interpersonal connections we have but the quality of those connections that matters.  Some people are natural social butterflies. Others are more comfortable in small groups or one-on-one.  And that's OK.  We thrive when we have the opportunity to give and receive love - regardless of the setting.  

Next week, I’ll be back to discuss how these first three pillars -- eating well, physical activity, and connecting socially -- all add up to support the last pillar of longevity: Joy.

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