What comes to mind when you think about how to increase your life expectancy? The first things that most of us think of are exercise, healthy food, and good genes. And that makes sense -- these are some of the baseline factors that keep our bodies running and give us a fighting chance to live longer.
But there’s another deeply important factor in living longer: social and community life. This is a core piece of what makes a healthy life for many seniors, and is scientifically proven to increase life spans.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how this discovery first took place within the science community. He sets the scene of a 1950s town in Pennsylvania called Roseto, built and inhabited by southern Italian immigrants. A physician named Stewart Wolf was drawn to study Roseto’s inhabitants after finding that hardly any of them ever died of heart disease or other causes besides natural old age. Ruling out the typical causes of good health -- genetic factors (the townspeople’s relatives living in other communities were not nearly as healthy), good diet (these folks admittedly ate fatty foods), and good exercise (they weren’t particularly inclined to this either), Wolf was stumped as to what made Rosetans able to live so long.
He continued to seek answers as to what made this group of people different, and found answers in their community life. He took note of the little social interactions everyone experienced throughout the day, the friendliness with which people treated one another, and the way that elders were connected to the greater community, receiving respect and help from younger generations. It turns out that this feeling of community and companionship was actually extending people’s lives.
Since this revelation, it has become widely known that social life and community is crucial in the upkeep of mental and physical health for seniors. Scientists have observed strong links between healthy social lives and decreased risk of physical health issues -- such as inflammation and hypertension -- as well as a link to longer lives in general (Yang et al.). Naturally, healthy social interactions result in increased mental health as well -- this is especially crucial in old age, when mental health controls not just mood but also cognitive sharpness.
We certainly can’t all live in a situation like that of 1950’s Roseto, and social isolation presents a significant problem to seniors across our country today. But there are many actions we can take here and now to make Bergen County a community where our elders can live longer, continue to thrive, and feel socially connected.
The Bergen Volunteers CHEER program has been working in this spirit for 65 years. This program is more than just assistance with errands, and deliveries of food and prescriptions -- it’s a crucial way for us to connect with our elders, bringing friendship and socialization into their lives.
With CHEER, Seniors enjoy the companionship and conversation they deserve and are able to feel more plugged in to their community. Sometimes just reading the newspaper with a volunteer and processing the goings-on of the world together can make a world of difference for our clients. A wellness check where a client knows they have a friend looking out for their long-term wellbeing can be similarly comforting. These small instances of companionship and community can undoubtedly improve our seniors’ health, life expectancy, and quality of life.
Do you want in on this cause? We encourage you to join us at CHEER, and take part in creating better lives for our elders in Bergen County! If you are interested in joining CHEER as a volunteer or to recommend someone to receive the program’s services, please visit: www.bergenvolunteers.org/programs or contact Michele at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown and Co., 2008.
Yang, Yang Claire et al. “Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 113,3 (2016): 578-83. doi:10.1073/pnas.1511085112