Plenty of exercise. Healthy food. Positive attitude. Plain good old luck. There’s lots of advice out there about how to keep body and brain in optimal shape as the years roll along. We’ve written about this issue with some frequency but not with the degree of scientific insight that’s increasingly available.
Louis Cozolino is a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. His book, Timeless: Nature’s Formula for Health and Longevity, emphasizes the positive impact of human relationships as the key to longer, healthier living. He writes,
Of all the experiences we need to survive and thrive, it is the experience of relating to others that is the most meaningful and important.
Our Brains Are Social Organs
Cozolino’s thinking grows out of the relatively new field of interpersonal neurobiology, based on the recognition that humans are best understood not in isolation, but in the context of their connections with others.
Our brains, Professor Cozolino writes, are social organs, and that means that we are wired to connect with each other and to interact in groups. A life that maximises social interaction and human-to-human contact is good for the brain at every stage, particularly for the ageing brain.
The field of social neuroscience has expanded tremendously in the past few years. We now know that people who have more social support tend to have better mental health, cardiovascular health, immunological functioning, and cognitive performance.
The well-known, long-running Harvard Medical School Nurses’ Health Study was one of the early studies to reveal how being socially integrated can lead to greater life satisfaction, and longevity over time.
Researchers who conducted the Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents published in the National Library of Medicine came to similar conclusions. This study which involved nearly 7,000 people over a nine-year period found that those with more social ties tended to live longer regardless of their socioeconomic status, smoking, drinking, exercise, or obesity. The mortality rate of men with the fewest ties was 2.3 times that of men with the most ties, the researchers found, while the mortality rate of women with the fewest ties was 2.8 times that of women with the most ties.
Social Relationships Reduce Stress
One explanation is that social relationships help calm our stress-response system. While chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol wreak havoc on our physical and emotional health, experiencing safe and supportive social relationships has the opposite effect.
“How we bond and stay attached to others is at the core of our resilience, self-esteem, and physical health,” Professor Cozolino writes. “We build the brains of our children through our interaction with them, and we keep our own brains growing and changing throughout life by staying connected to others.”
Social relationships help calm our stress-response system.
As we grow older, what’s lost in quick recall and short-term memory is balanced by an ability to reflect and to hold multiple perspectives, Professor Cozolino argues. Neurological changes in the ageing brain may contribute to emotional regulation and an increased ability to relate compassionately to others.
That’s partly because the effects of fear and anxiety on the brain tend to lessen as people grow older, enabling them to see social situations with less defensiveness and more clarity, Professor Cozolino contends.
Since the human brain is almost endlessly adaptive throughout the life cycle, change is as possible for older people as for infants. New neurons continue to grow in the brain until the end of life, and scientists have begun looking at the brains of older adults who are leading active and productive lives to find out why they are so healthy.
Wisdom & Compassion
In his observations about successful agers, Professor Cozolino is particularly interested in the qualities of wisdom and compassion that tend to emerge as the human brain changes over time. Although he doesn’t pinpoint studies for every assertion and admits that wisdom can be a hard quality to pin down, he concludes that “much of wisdom is expressed in how people interact with and treat one another.”
He offers his own personal experiences with wise elders along the way, making the case for the positive influence that affectionate, supportive older people can have on younger people.
When it comes to practical advice, Professor Cozolino points out ways that older people can maintain those important connections. Those who are grandparents have a clear opportunity to nurture their grandchildren, help that is sorely needed in today.
For others, volunteering in various capacities can foster healthy relationships. Not only are such connections good for ageing people themselves, Professor Cozolino also says they are beneficial for society.
He concludes, “Instead of putting our elders out to pasture, we might learn to harness the experience, affection, and time they have to offer.”