Having friends is as important as diet and exercise for living longer, a longevity expert says

Having friends is as important as diet and exercise for living longer, a longevity expert says
  • Having good relationships is thought to help you live longer.

  • Professor Rose Anne Kenny said that social interaction is as important as exercise for longevity.

  • She said humans need social interaction like we need food and water.

An expert in old age has explained that having social interactions and good friendships could be as important as exercise and diet for longevity.

Professor Rose Anne Kenny, the chair of medical gerontology at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and the founding principal investigator for The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, told the ZOE podcast that humans have evolved to need social interaction like we've evolved to need food and water. Denying ourselves social interaction is as "toxic" as not eating or drinking, she said.

Kenny's research suggests that social interaction is good for us

The TILDA study has collected information on the health, lifestyles, and financial situations of 8,504 people in Ireland over the age of 50 since 2006. Kenny said that the study found that social participation, friendship, and social relationships are just as important as the other factors that we usually associate with longevity, such as exercise, diet, and not smoking.

She said that loneliness "triggers chronic inflammation," which could be the root cause of many of the "big diseases" that often impact people in older age, such as cancer, heart disease, strokes, and dementia.

Inflammation is a natural process that occurs when the body produces chemicals to help address injury or infection, and also when you experience stress But chronic, or long term, inflammation is associated with increased risks of health issues such as heart attacks. Research suggests that people who are more socially isolated have higher levels of inflammatory chemicals in their tissues, which, over time, could lead to poorer health.

Researchers aren't sure whether this inflammation comes as a direct result of loneliness, or if it is caused by the increased stress that comes with less social interaction.

Regardless, Kenny recommended that you should "put as much effort into building friendships as you do choosing your food or selecting the physical activity you like," to reduce stress and inflammation, and therefore potentially reduce the risks of poor health.

Professor James Coan, author of a study that found holding hands with someone you are close to relieves pain, previously told Insider: "Relationships are like stress relievers. Because they calm your body down, they take you out of fight or flight mode, and back to equilibrium. That's how we think it works."

Volunteering and group exercise are great ways to combat loneliness

Kenny said that an easy way to make friends or increase your social interaction is to make all your hobbies social, so doing a yoga class with others instead of alone at home, or joining a choir.

She also said that volunteering on a regular basis has been associated with a better quality of life, less physical illness, and less depression, no matter when you start. And you don't need to be happy to begin with, because volunteering "independently influences your health," according to Kenny.

One 2020 study found that volunteering is associated with a positive change in wellbeing, no matter whether participants were happy and healthy or not when they began to volunteer.

It's important to note, though, that the quality of social relationships matters, and you shouldn't prioritize those that don't make you happy.

"If a friendship or engagement with a family member is strained or unpleasant, that is not good for us," Kenny said. "We find triggers a stress process."

Insider previously reported on how to build better relationships with the people in your life.

Read the original article on Insider