Here is the full transcript of psychologist Susan Pinker’s TED Talk: The Secret to Living Longer May Be Your Social Life.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The secret to living longer may be your social life by Susan Pinker
Here’s an intriguing fact. In the developed world, everywhere, women live an average of six to eight years longer than men do. Six to eight years longer. That’s, like, a huge gap.
In 2015, the “Lancet” published an article showing that men in rich countries are twice as likely to die as women are at any age. But there is one place in the world where men live as long as women. It’s a remote, mountainous zone, a blue zone, where super longevity is common to both sexes.
This is the blue zone in Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean, between Corsica and Tunisia, where there are six times as many centenarians as on the Italian mainland, less than 200 miles away. There are 10 times as many centenarians as there are in North America. It’s the only place where men live as long as women. But why? My curiosity was piqued.
I decided to research the science and the habits of the place, and I started with the genetic profile. I discovered soon enough that genes account for just 25% of their longevity. The other 75% is lifestyle.
So what does it take to live to 100 or beyond? What are they doing right? What you’re looking at is an aerial view of Villagrande. It’s a village at the epicenter of the blue zone where I went to investigate this, and as you can see, architectural beauty is not its main virtue, density is: tightly spaced houses, interwoven alleys and streets. It means that the villagers’ lives constantly intersect.
And as I walked through the village, I could feel hundreds of pairs of eyes watching me from behind doorways and curtains, from behind shutters. Because like all ancient villages, Villagrande couldn’t have survived without this structure, without its walls, without its cathedral, without its village square, because defense and social cohesion defined its design.
Urban priorities changed as we moved towards the industrial revolution because infectious disease became the risk of the day. But what about now? Now, social isolation is the public health risk of our time.
Now, a third of the population says they have two or fewer people to lean on. But let’s go to Villagrande now as a contrast to meet some centenarians.
Meet Giuseppe Murinu. He’s 102, a supercentenarian and a lifelong resident of the village of Villagrande. He was a gregarious man. He loved to recount stories such as how he lived like a bird from what he could find on the forest floor during not one but two world wars, how he and his wife, who also lived past 100, raised six children in a small, homey kitchen where I interviewed him.
Here he is with his sons Angelo and Domenico, both in their 70s and looking after their father, and who were quite frankly very suspicious of me and my daughter who came along with me on this research trip, because the flip side of social cohesion is a wariness of strangers and outsiders.
But Giuseppe, he wasn’t suspicious at all. He was a happy-go-lucky guy, very outgoing with a positive outlook. And I wondered: so is that what it takes to live to be 100 or beyond, thinking positively? Actually, no.
Meet Giovanni Corrias. He’s 101, the grumpiest person I have ever met. And he put a lie to the notion that you have to be positive to live a long life. And there is evidence for this. When I asked him why he lived so long, he kind of looked at me under hooded eyelids and he growled, “Nobody has to know my secrets.”
But despite being a sourpuss, the niece who lived with him and looked after him called him “Il Tesoro,” “my treasure”. And she respected him and loved him, and she told me, when I questioned this obvious loss of her freedom, “You just don’t understand, do you? Looking after this man is a pleasure. It’s a huge privilege for me. This is my heritage.”
And indeed, wherever I went to interview these centenarians, I found a kitchen party. Here’s Giovanni with his two nieces, Maria above him and beside him his great-niece Sara, who came when I was there to bring fresh fruits and vegetables.
And I quickly discovered by being there that in the blue zone, as people age, and indeed across their lifespans, they’re always surrounded by extended family, by friends, by neighbors, the priest, the barkeeper, the grocer. People are always there or dropping by. They are never left to live solitary lives. This is unlike the rest of the developed world, where as George Burns quipped, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring family in another city.”
Now, so far we’ve only met men, long-living men, but I met women too, and here you see Zia Teresa. She, at over 100, taught me how to make the local specialty, which is called culurgiones, which are these large pasta pockets like ravioli about this size, this size, and they’re filled with high-fat ricotta and mint and drenched in tomato sauce.
And she showed me how to make just the right crimp so they wouldn’t open, and she makes them with her daughters every Sunday and distributes them by the dozens to neighbors and friends. And that’s when I discovered a low-fat, gluten-free diet is not what it takes to live to 100 in the blue zone.
Now, these centenarians’ stories along with the science that underpins them prompted me to ask myself some questions too, such as, when am I going to die and how can I put that day off? And as you will see, the answer is not what we expect.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad is a researcher at Brigham Young University and she addressed this very question in a series of studies of tens of thousands of middle aged people much like this audience here. And she looked at every aspect of their lifestyle: their diet, their exercise, their marital status, how often they went to the doctor, whether they smoked or drank, etc. She recorded all of this and then she and her colleagues sat tight and waited for seven years to see who would still be breathing.
And of the people left standing, what reduced their chances of dying the most? That was her question. So let’s now look at her data in summary, going from the least powerful predictor to the strongest OK?
So clean air, which is great, it doesn’t predict how long you will live. Whether you have your hypertension treated is good. Still not a strong predictor. Whether you’re lean or overweight, you can stop feeling guilty about this, because it’s only in third place.
How much exercise you get is next, still only a moderate predictor. Whether you’ve had a cardiac event and you’re in rehab and exercising, getting higher now. Whether you’ve had a flu vaccine. Did anybody here know that having a flu vaccine protects you more than doing exercise? Whether you were drinking and quit, or whether you’re a moderate drinker, whether you don’t smoke, or if you did, whether you quit, and getting towards the top predictors are two features of your social life.
First, your close relationships. These are the people that you can call on for a loan if you need money suddenly, who will call the doctor if you’re not feeling well or who will take you to the hospital, or who will sit with you. if you’re having an existential crisis, if you’re in despair. Those people, that little clutch of people are a strong predictor, if you have them, of how long you’ll live.
And then something that surprised me, something that’s called social integration. This means how much you interact with people as you move through your day. How many people do you talk to? And these mean both your weak and your strong bonds, so not just the people you’re really close to, who mean a lot to you, but, like, do you talk to the guy who every day makes you your coffee? Do you talk to the postman? Do you talk to the woman who walks by your house every day with her dog? Do you play bridge or poker, have a book club?