Last week I mentioned that, in my studies on women and aging, there seemed to be several key factors that contributed to their resilience. The first is community.
What I am talking about here is the importance of building good social relationships and meaningful friendships. The research shows that women live longer than men because we are much better at social connections. Even joining a walking group, a yoga class, or a book club, or attending regular services at a church, synagogue or mosque, play a significant role in keeping you healthy. We know, for example, that people with a good circle of friends are better able to handle serious illness and many even recover faster if they have a supportive network.
In a book called Aging Well, Harvard scholar George Vaillant, wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for a group of Harvard men who were part of a study that began when they were all young, back in 1938, and which continued into older age. One of these men was the late President John F. Kennedy. The six factors that predicted healthy aging were: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. No surprises there.
What did surprise the researchers was the role that community played in the men’s resilience and ability to age well. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
Canadian author and psychologist Susan Pinker agrees. She argues that social gatherings are critical to our resiliency and well-being, especially as we age. Indeed, the lack of close personal friendships may shorten our lives faster than cigarettes, salt, sugar and animal fat. Real time, face to face contact, can help us to live healthier and longer lives. Chatting with friends on the porch or over the back fence, playing cards once a week, meeting friends every Tuesday morning at the coffee shop, or going to choir practice every week, can actually lengthen your life and bring you more happiness. And thank goodness we are beginning to move into a time of fewer social restrictions after this long Covid winter, because get this: Study after study shows that these kinds of activities will do far more to promote health and longevity than “slathering on the sunscreen, downing fistfuls of vitamins, …., or sweating it out at the gym or with hot yoga.”
Again, the key to resilience and healthy aging is “relationships, relationships, relationships.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association says that those aged sixty-five and older suffer from higher levels of depression that the younger populations. Paul Links, former Chief of Psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, says that his own extensive research in the field also bears this out. He has seen the increase in depression among seniors firsthand in his practice. Links points to the lack of “connectiveness” these people feel to others, their sense of isolation, and loneliness as chief causes of deteriorating mental health among older adults.
Of course, if you are feeling this way, especially for more than a day or so,
it is imperative to seek medical help. But finding ways to maintain old friendships and build new ones can help to give you the resilience that is so important as we age. Friendship may in fact be the best medicine you can take!
 Susan Pinker, The Village Effect. How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us healthier and Happier. (Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2015.), p. 7.
Carstensen, A Long Bright Future, 98.