Updated: Aug 10
Relationships: The Hidden Treasure To A Long and Healthy Life
Have you ever wondered what really makes you healthy?
Is it the vitamins you take and the food you eat? Is it the exercise you do and the medical care you get? All of these things are surely important. But I believe there is a hidden dimension to your health that you may have overlooked or ignored: your relationships.
Relationships can be the difference between enjoying a long healthy life and just suffering through it. Or even worse, dying long before your time. Getting and staying healthy may very well depend on the quality and resiliency of your friendships and family ties.
Are Relationships the Forgotten Key to Health?
Scientists have been trying to unravel how our relationships affect our health for a long time. In the last few years the role and importance of social attachments has become clearer. What was once hidden and neglected has become a cornerstone to the quest for health, happiness, and longevity.
Relationships and Health
Not long ago, a neighbor asked me about making and keeping friends as we grow older. Her question resonated with me. Although I have sustained many wonderful friendships and have a close knit nuclear family, my past is strewn with people I have lost touch with or have been disappointed that the relationships have petered out. There are also a few who I thought were friends but, as it turned out, were not.
Surprisingly, due to 23andme, I've made connections with long lost family members and had the joy of rekindling those relationships.
All of this has led me to explore the impact relationships have on our health and wellbeing.
"The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” -- Waldinger
The Health Impact of Social Connections (Social Fitness)
Sustaining helpful and nurturing relationships (aka social fitness) are much more important to your health and longevity than many have recognized in the past.
In fact, an 85 year long study out of Harvard has shown that social fitness can help you live longer and happier.
Robert Waldinger, director of the study, noted that “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Taking care of our body is important but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
The study found that it wasn’t cholesterol levels at age 50 that determined health status at 80. In a TED Talk, Waldinger stated “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” Those with very strong social connections experienced the least mental decline as they aged.
In another study of 81 senior heterosexual couples, those with the highest current levels of satisfaction with their partners, had after 2.5 years “lower levels of negative affect, less depression, and greater life satisfaction.” The authors concluded that positive and nurturing attachment to partners was closely linked to wellbeing over time.
Participants in both studies that exhibited less depression and anxiety, and greater relationship satisfaction could be said to be socially fit. Waldinger stresses that social fitness "requires taking stock of relationships, and being honest with ourselves about where we're devoting our time and whether we are tending to the connections that help us thrive."
"When you feel nurtured, trust your partner, feel reassured, your mind and body switch from flight or fight to calm and relaxed."
So what is it about human attachment that is so important to health and happiness?
Lissa Rankin, MD, in her groundbreaking work Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself states:
“When you feel loved, supported, and nurtured in a relationship, your mind experiences fewer stress responses and elicits more relaxation responses, and the physiology of the body responds accordingly.”
One of the keys to healing is the degree to which your relationships are nurturing and imbued with trust.
She goes on to say how this nurturing extends even to the doctor/patient relationship:
“When a patient imbues the physician with positive meaning, feels tended, trusting, reassured, and nurtured, the stress response is aborted. The relaxation response is induced. The patient starts to get better right away.”
This same dynamic is true for all your relationships. When you feel nurtured, trust your partner, feel reassured, your mind and body switch from flight or fight to calm and relaxed. A balanced state is achieved that fosters health and longevity.
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Social Fitness and Longevity
People who are socially fit are not only healthier and happier but also tend to live longer than those who are socially isolated. This could be due to a number of factors, such as the social support and stress relief that comes with having close social connections, as well as the beneficial effects on mental health and overall well-being.
One study, for example, found that older adults who reported having strong social relationships were 50% more likely to live longer than those who reported feeling lonely or isolated.
It’s not surprising then that positive relationships have been found to have a protective effect against a number of health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and Alzheimer's that reduce life expectancy.
Research is more and more uncovering strong connections between relationships and longevity. It is now becoming clear that maintaining social fitness is central to staying healthy and living a long, fulfilling life.
”Making and keeping friends as we age is a meaningful and fulfilling aspect of life."
Making and Keeping Friends in Later Years
Getting back to my neighbor’s question about making and keeping friends as we age, I have found a number of things that have helped me along the way. Although I’m not always good at this, I have found some behaviors really helpful . Not all of my suggestions fit every person. Look through the list and choose the ones that are doable for you. If some seem out of reach, take small steps to utilize them and discover that they may be just what you need.
Making and keeping friends as you age is a meaningful and fulfilling aspect of life. While some circumstances may change with age, the fundamental principles of building and maintaining friendships remain constant. Here are some tips on how to make and keep friends at any age:
1 - Join Social Groups or Clubs: Participate in activities or join clubs that interest you. Whether it's a book club, a church or temple group, a gardening group, or a hobby club, these gatherings provide an excellent opportunity to meet like-minded individuals and form connections.
2 - Volunteer: Volunteering is a great way to meet new people while giving back to the community. Working together for a common cause can foster strong bonds among individuals.
3 - Stay Engaged in Community Activities: Attend local events, workshops, or seminars. Being active in your community allows you to meet new people and maintain a sense of belonging.
4 - Attend Senior Centers: Many communities have senior centers that offer a variety of programs and activities. These centers provide a welcoming environment to meet new people and make friends.
5 - Embrace Technology: Don't be afraid to use technology to connect with others. Social media platforms, online forums, and video calling applications can help you stay in touch with friends and family and even make new connections.
6 - Be a Good Listener: In conversations, show genuine interest in what others have to say. Be a good listener and engage in meaningful discussions. People appreciate being heard and understood.
7 - Be Open and Approachable: Approach others with a friendly attitude. Smile, initiate conversations, and be open to meeting new people. Friendships often start with a simple hello.
8 - Stay Positive and Supportive: Positivity and encouragement go a long way in building and maintaining friendships. Be supportive and celebrate your friends' successes.
9 - Accept Differences: Embrace the diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and experiences among your friends. Accepting and respecting differences can strengthen friendships.
10 - Initiate Social Gatherings: Take the initiative to organize social gatherings or outings. Hosting events at your home or suggesting group activities can help strengthen the bond with your friends.
11 - Stay in Touch: Make an effort to keep in touch with your friends regularly. Reach out through phone calls, emails, or even handwritten letters. Regular communication is vital to sustaining friendships.
12 - Be Reliable and Dependable: Being reliable and dependable is crucial in any friendship. Follow through on commitments and be there for your friends when they need support.
13 - Adapt to Changing Circumstances: As you age, your circumstances might change, and so might your friends. Be open to adapting and adjusting to these changes to maintain strong connections.
14 - Celebrate Milestones and Birthdays: Remembering and celebrating important milestones and birthdays shows that you value your friends and care about them.
15 - Participate in Intergenerational Activities: Engaging in activities that involve people of different age groups can provide a fresh perspective and introduce you to new friends.
Remember, making and maintaining friendships is a two-way process. It requires effort and willingness from both parties. Be patient and don't get discouraged if it takes time to build strong connections. Genuine and lasting friendships can greatly enrich your life as you grow older.
Related: Access my article on taking small steps to change your life.
George Valliant, one of the prior directors of the Harvard longevity study I quoted above said “When the study began (over 80 years ago) nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
It’s now clear that the more lifestyle pieces you have in place, diet, exercise, stress management, restful sleep, the better your chances of living a long and healthy life. You can now add with certainty an emphasis on nurturing and supportive relationships (social fitness).
Pay more attention to the friendships and family ties that give you comfort. Use the checklist I provided above to find ways to deepen your attachments. If you find yourself saying “Gosh, I haven't’ seen so and so in a while.” Pick up the phone or IPad; Get in touch. Renew the relationship. Don’t hold grudges. Grudges take a terrible toll on our lives.
In the end, our relationships affect our bodies and minds in powerful ways. For me, when I'm feeling down, the best remedy is getting together with friends and family. I feel invigorated and balanced.
Good luck and good health.
You can contact me at email@example.com
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Dr. Oliva, ND is the founder of the health and fitness website Transform Your Life. He is a New York State licensed Master Social Worker, a traditional Naturopath, a board certified Holistic Health Practitioner in addition to being a health and fitness writer.
He is a member of the American Naturopathic Medical Association, the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, the Society of Complementary and Holistic Practitioners, and the National Association of Social Workers. Dr. Oliva is a former Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College (CUNY), and director emeritus of the Brooklyn College Magner Career Center. He has earned certification in Mindfulness meditation from Molloy College.
Dr. Oliva received Zen meditation and Hatha Yoga training at the Ruah Institute as well as tutelage in Chinese Chan meditation under Master Sheng-Yen.
The information in this article is for educational purposes only and not meant to diagnose or treat any disease or health condition. Consult your medical provider about any medical conditions you may have.