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Beyond Diet and Exercise: The Social Way to Add Years to Your Life

Living well for longer is something we can all hope for. For many women, it’s difficult to juggle a healthy lifestyle, balanced diet and regular exercise while raising a family, building a career or taking on caring responsibilities for older relatives.

The good news is that living longer may not purely be about diet and exercise. Research has shown that community, friendships and family relationships can also influence your lifespan.

Where Do People Live Longest?

National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner travelled the world to find the places where people are likely to live longest. By interviewing people over the age of 100 and analysing data, he uncovered the secrets not only to living longer, but to also having good quality of life in older age.

Buettner coined the areas of the world with high longevity and vitality “blue zones”. The term came from Buettner and colleagues drawing blue circles on a map to mark the locations of extreme longevity.

The 5 places highlighted and studied as blue zones were:

  1. Barbagia region, Sardinia
  2. Ikaria, Greece
  3. Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  4. Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California
  5. Okinawa, Japan

The Lifestyle Habits of Healthy Longevity

With the blue zones identified, a team of specialist researchers started looking for common lifestyle choices that could be connected to living a long, healthy life. They concluded that the following were all important factors:

  • Moving naturally and regularly
  • Having the right outlook and a sense of purpose in life
  • Eating wisely
  • Making connections with others
  • Having a sense of belonging

One of the crucial aspects of daily life in these unconnected blue zones around the world is the emphasis on strong social connections within communities, families and friendship networks. These appear to contribute towards extra years of vitality.

1 Family

Putting loved ones first is one of the blue zone principles. Blue zone residents may live in multi-generational households or in close proximity to other family members. They often commit to a life partner, which has been shown to add up to 3 years to your lifespan.

Investing in children by giving them time and support is also valued, in part because they may be more likely to care for you in older age.

2 Friendship Networks

Spending time with the ‘right tribe’ could help you live longer.

Friendships provide emotional support, reduce stress levels and contribute to overall mental wellbeing. In Okinawa, Japan, strong bonds are formed between groups of around 5 people, with the hope that the friendships will last their whole lifetime. The groups, known as “moais”, get together to celebrate life’s successes and support each other through harder times.

The emphasis on the moais social bond goes beyond meeting regularly. It involves a shared responsibility to live well. This is important, because human behaviour can be contagious. Around 80% of us want to change our health habits, and by aligning with others who value eating well, moving more or connecting deeply, you are more likely to achieve your healthy living goals, build lifelong friendships and feel a sense of purpose.

Furthermore, feelings of loneliness or isolation are linked to an increase in mortality risk. Having a strong social network may mitigate this.

3 Communities

Most of the centenarians interviewed by Buettner’s researchers belonged to a faith-based community. This sense of belonging may add a significant number of years to your life – the research showed that going to a faith-based service 4 times each month could add between 4 and 14 years.

More research may be required to confirm if being part of a community that does not centre around faith could also support longevity.

Final Thoughts

Our social interactions can impact our longevity. While we may not want, or be able, to live in a multi-generational household, or may not be religious, making simple changes could help us forge meaningful social connections.

Avoid comparing your social life to someone else’s, and instead think about how you could deepen your existing friendships or seek new relationships with like-minded individuals.

To find out more about blue zones and the incredible results seen when American towns were redesigned to naturally support longevity, please read Buettner’s paper Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived.

About Hannah Rose

Hannah Rose worked as a doctor before becoming a freelance medical copywriter. She is passionate about writing the latest in health to empower individuals to understand and take control of their wellbeing. Contact Hannah here.


Buettner D, Skemp S. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World's Longest Lived. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016 Jul 7;10(5):318-321

Tagged under: Women's Health