Would you agree that social contact helps keep us young? I’ve been immersed in this complex little question since last weekend.
It started when Gordon, a good friend and one of the most healthy and active 70+ people I know, was describing his week to us in an email he sent last Sunday. He talked about an all-day strategic planning meeting he’d participated in, a board meeting he‘d chaired, a big birthday party he’d attended, the choir he’d sung in, and grandchildren he’d babysat. To which Rick, my husband, replied, also by email: “Wow, Gordon! You likely encountered more people in the past fortnight than your remote ancestor did in a lifetime.”
Rick’s comment triggered an evocative image. I pictured myself as my own remote ancestor around a campfire with a few fellow clansmen. I imagined us enthusiastically anticipating a journey to a distant land where we would meet up with four or five other tribes for the social event of a lifetime…perhaps as many as – picture it! – 50 people. Truly, as this ancestor, I wouldn’t encounter as many people in my whole life (which I could expect to last all of 30 or so years) as Gordon has in a typical week.
With this past deeply coded into our genetic makeup, were we programmed to live the life that Gordon practices?
The question heated up when an article – “A group solution to growing old” – by columnist Nick Galvin featured our Shedders household in Pulse, the Sydney Morning Herald’s health and science supplement. If you haven’t seen it, check it out here. It paints a glowing picture of our Mitchells Island life together, and why the six of us chose to travel in this direction.
Because the article mentioned this blog, it suddenly was inundated with a tsunami of hits (you’re allowed to call 2300 hits a tsunami when you’re a country girl). I found myself sitting spellbound at my computer, staring at the site stats and pressing F5 to refresh the screen and watch the numbers climb. Who were all these people who were interested enough in Nick’s article that they would seek out my website? Clearly their attention was captured by the lively social ambiance, by people who have also had the rash and fleeting thought that they would love to retire together – but then were actually mad enough to do it. And seem to be enjoying it!
The photo is of us laughing, obviously enjoying life, gathered around the big island in our communal kitchen. If the truth be told, we are probably laughing at something the photographer said. Further truth be told, there has likely been the occasional ruckus around that same kitchen bench when we may not have looked quite so smiley. But the larger truth is that the six of us have a good time together; our lives are enriched by each other, we get and give support, we share challenges, we rev each other up. There’s no such thing as a dull day.
But I also noticed Nick Galvin’s second article in the Pulse section, “With help from some friends”. This smaller piece was equally interesting, putting as it did a whole new spin on the social contacts question. “Good relationships and social ties have a bigger impact on health as we age than most people realise,” Nick writes. He boldly introduces his theme saying that it is “a well-established medical fact – loneliness and social isolation are killers”, and goes on to cite large-scale studies that support his premise. Consider the numbing conclusion from one of these studies: “People with strong social relationships had a 50 per cent increased chance of survival than those who were less well connected. It was, concluded the authors, an effect comparable with quitting smoking.” Wow.
Surely this means my friend Gordon, with his family and directorships and large network of friends, could expect to sail into his second century in fine health. My remote ancestor, on the other hand, didn’t have a lot of choice. Populations were scarce, dangers were everywhere, Facebook wasn’t even a gleam in her eye. There were no end of reasons why her life would be so short – but I’ll bet social interactions added to its fragile length.
Gordon concluded his email with a profound observation about all the people he has in his life: “It is really like sailing a yacht through choppy waters with a lot of stabilisers, or like stays on a mast that surround and support me. And I offer that same stability and connectedness to others.”
So my temporary answer to the question of the week is: YES – as Gordon so descriptively says, our social connections give great stability to our lives. They’re good for us; they do keep us young.
My inbox is overflowing this week, in large part due to the Herald article. I find that my eye quickly scans the dark list of unread emails to see if there is something from close family, or from good friends – or especially from my Shedder* housemates, as I am now on the other side of the world from them. But I also thoroughly enjoy the little air-kisses from old acquaintances on Facebook, or comments on the blog from strangers. Every relationship, longstanding or fleeting, strong or breezy, adds to my quality of life.
The more help from my friends the better.
* If you’re wondering why we call ourselves the Shedders, have a read of Chapter 5 of my book, Shedders. For a mere $3.99 you can answer this and MANY other questions you might have about what it takes to dream up an intentional community, to sparkle radiantly during the process, to crash and almost burn any number of times, and ultimately to hurdle the obstacles and arrive where we are.