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We all want to live longer, and we’ve been cautioned that healthy food, exercise, cessation of smoking and keeping our mental acuity are the solutions. But when Marta Zaraska, a Canadian-born Washington Post journalist who’s written on molecular biochemistry, epidemiology, neuroscience, psychology and nutrition studied the science of human longevity, she was shocked at what she found. Her previous book, “Meat Hooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5 Million Year Obsession”, which was chosen by the Nature Journal as one of the best science books of 2016, cemented her ability to effectively tackle the subject of human longevity.
In “Growing Young”, she set out to prioritize habits of longevity and focus on what matters most if you want to live a long life. The book’s eleven chapters take the reader around the world with her as she experiences flower arranging with 80-year-olds in Japan, visits senior centers and “hugging rooms,” and catches wild mice in the woods of central England. She wanted to determine the habits that impact longevity and reveal the insight she garnered along the way. Trust me when I say that after reading this well-researched study, your life will be changed. You will worry less, buy less, forgive yourself more, spend more time with family and friends and laugh a lot more.
How can this book help?
She first looks at attitude. In 2009, researchers found that women with cynical hostility, a personality trait defined by pessimism and mistrust, were more likely to develop coronary heart disease and die prematurely in contrast to another study last year that found that optimistic men and women have 11 to 15 percent longer life spans than their counter parts. Zaraska writes that positive attitudes and optimism can be learned through meditation, volunteerism and spiritual practices, and that such positive personalities lower their mortality rate by 44 percent.
Secondly, she examines the importance of others in one’s life, specifically the company we keep. Marriage and friendship foster longer life spans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,443 unmarried people per 100,00 died in 2017 versus just 779 married people per 100,000. What we don’t know is whether marriage actually protects against death, or if healthy people are more likely to marry.
At any rate, a committed romantic relationship lowers mortality by 49 percent. In the absence of a life partner, a strong support network of family, friends and helpful neighbors lowers mortality risk by 45 percent versus exercise which only lowers it by 23 percent. Zaraska offers examples such as mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn might be better for you than a gym workout. Jogging with a friend is certainly better than going it alone and eating healthy along with someone is better than gobbling up your broccoli alone in front of the television.
Thirdly, the power of community and connection cannot be underestimated. Zaraska concludes that volunteering lowers your mortality by 22 percent while certain health fads like eating kale or turmeric haven’t been shown to help at all. The author also offers advice to maximize our lifespan in practical and unexpected ways and encourages us to never stop learning and growing.
She explores the mind and its interconnection with our body and with others so that our long lives are rich and meaningful. Improving our social lives and cultivating our minds can be as important for health and longevity as diet and exercise. Zaraska concludes that in addition to healthy nutrition and physical activity, deepening friendships, practicing empathy, and contemplating one’s purpose in life can improve our lifespans.
What matters most in life, she writes, is what helps us live the longest. She says, “When you grow as a person, chances are you will also grow young.”