The Italian island of Sardinia is home to more than six times as many centenarians as the Italian mainland and ten times as many as North America. It also has just as many male centenarians as female – another anomaly when compared to the developed world, where women live on average six to eight years older than men.
Sardinia is named as one of the ‘Blue Zones’ of the world – alongside Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, Costa Rica’s isolated Nicoya Peninsula and the Greek Island of Ikaria – where people live longer and healthier than anywhere else.
Psychologist Susan Pinker decided to research the secrets of Sardinia’s centenarian population and she discovered that the secret to their long lives had nothing to do with thinking positively or eating a certain diet, but had everything to do with the relationships they had with other people.
In her TED Talk ‘The Secret to living longer may be your social life’, Ms Pinker says her research revealed that housing density and the resultant strong social ties residents had with each other could be the main contributor to their longevity.
“In Villagrande, a village at the epicentre of the blue zone, architectural beauty is not its main virtue, density is. Tightly spaced houses, interwoven alleys and streets means the villagers lives constantly intersect,” says Ms Pinker.
As an ancient village, Villagrande was designed with invasion as a real threat, but in modern towns and cities we face a more insidious threat – isolation.
“Now social isolation is the public health risk of our time. A third of the population say they have two or fewer people to lean on.”
And it’s not just this network of close friends and family that can have an effect on our health, but our general social engagement. In fact, social integration – how much you interact with people throughout the day – emerged through Ms Pinker’s research as the top predictor for a long, healthy life, followed by close relationships with family and friends.
“I quickly discovered that as people in the blue zone age, and indeed through their lifespan, that they’re constantly surrounded by people. They’re always surrounded by extended family, by friends, by neighbours, the priest, the barkeeper, the grocer. People are always there or dropping by. They are never left to live solitary lives.”
This correlation between social engagement and longevity ties in with research by Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, Utah, that uncovered the real impact of loneliness on health as we age. Her study revealed that lonely people had a 50 per cent increased risk of early death, compared with people who have good social connections.
Here in Australia, many of our elderly report feeling lonely, with Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt raising concerns last year that up to 40 per cent of aged care residents receive no visitors.
While the preference for Australian elderly is to age in their own home and communities, our family structures and lifestyles mean that often our elders are not as surrounded by family, friends and a strong community as those living in Villagrande. This can have an adverse effect on their health and wellbeing over time. It also means that opting to stay alone in their own home may not always be the best option.
What we can take from this research is that we need foster our social connections at every age and stage of our lives. As we age and we lose close family and loved ones, this could include choosing to move to a retirement village or an aged care community which focuses on social activities, lifestyle and community.
There is evidence here in Australia that those opting for community living are requiring aged services at an older age than those in the general community, with the average age of people going from a retirement village into aged care being 84 years – five years later than the general population at 79 years.
This suggests that the community fostered in these villages has a positive impact on health. We have also seen health improvements in some of our Seasons residents who moved to our communities after living alone.
The extra benefit for Seasons residents is that they continue living as part of a lively community right up to the end. They receive personalised care within the community in a way that increases their quality of life and removes the need to move into residential aged care.