When we consider our later years, there are a few questions that come to mind. Why and how do people live wonderfully long, engaged and rich lives in the homes and communities they love? How important are factors such as wealth, high achievement, low cholesterol, exercise, social status and class?
These are the questions that first led us on our journey to find two inspirational studies, The Blue Zones by Dan Beuttner with the help of the National Geographic, and The Study of Adult Development by researchers at Harvard. If you’ve heard us speak on these topics before, you’ll know that the findings and insights from these studies are both surprising and obvious, reassuring and thought provoking.
So, what are these studies all about?
The Blue Zones
This study identified places around the world where people regularly live vibrant and healthy lives past the age of 100 – naming these Blue Zones.
As you’d expect, diet and exercise play a very significant part; however, the study looked beyond nutrition and activity to examine the influence and effect of social and cultural constructs on longevity. It turns out that common to all Blue Zones is family, community and friendship.
The sense and creation of community and friendship are perhaps seen at their greatest in Okinawa, Japan. The Okinawan community and culture are built upon strong social networks, called Moais. A Moai is a lifelong circle of friends that support each other through all of life’s ups and downs well into older age. The Moai also innately reinforces healthy behaviours through shared experience. People who live in this community have low rates and incidents of cancer, heart disease and dementia. The women of this community are the longest living on the planet.
As the study finds, thanks to the formation of Moais, people living in Okinawa will travel through life with between five and six good friends. Compare this to Western societies where that number is between one and a half and three.
“It is the stress-shedding power and influence of friendships over our day-to-day lives that adds years to life and life to years,” explains Dan Beuttner.
The Study of Adult Development
This study was conducted by researchers at Harvard as a longitudinal study that followed two groups of men over the last 75 years. The purpose of the Study of Adult Development is to better understand and identify predictors of healthy ageing. It’s one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history.
Like The Blue Zones, the study has looked beyond the more ‘clinical’ aspects of healthy ageing, and focused on monitoring and measuring the physical and emotional wellbeing of two distinctly different populations based on their societal class: 456 men from some of the most disadvantaged families and areas in Boston and 268 male graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939-1944.
The study finds that social connections are really good for us. People who are more socially connected to family, friends and the community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who are less well connected.
Having someone or a group of people to rely on helps the nervous system relax, the brain stay healthier for longer, and reduces emotional and physical pain. The data is also very clear that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger.
Ageing at home
The importance of social connection, friendship and community engagement are now starting to be better understood as they relate to home care. This is important as the vast majority of Australians want to age at home, in their communities, connected to the friends and family they love for as long as possible. A study commissioned by Apia found that 97% of people aged 65 or over had a strong desire to maintain their independence by ‘ageing in place’.
These are critical things to think about as we grow older. Starting simple services in the home that maintain your Moai, keep you connected to your community and engaged with people makes a different to the quality and longevity of life.