Women live eight years more than men, on average. Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker was certain that discovering the reason why would be key for increasing human longevity. So, she boarded a plane with her daughter and traveled to Sardina, Italy, one of the Blue Zones (regions with the biggest populations of centenarians in the world). There, men and women surprisingly have the same life expectancy.
Sardinia is an island located south of Corsica and north of Tunisia. It has a population of 1.6 million inhabitants, slightly more than the population of Campinas, São Paulo state. The economy is based on cattle ranching and tourism. The houses are small, built next to each other and along narrow streets. Like most ancient towns, downtown includes a square and a cathedral. At the time when the town was built, the population’s closeness was a protection factor against invaders.
The first thing Susan discovered was that longevity was not just a genetic factor (25%), but rather associated to life habits (75%). She also noticed that the condensed architecture also led people to always be in contact with each other. “When I would go out on the street, I felt people observing me from windows. In a small community like this, strangers are observed with certain caution,” says Susan.
The next step was to interview a few centenarians. One of them was Giovanni Corrias, a grumpy old man that needed a wheelchair to get around. “When I asked him what he did to live so long, he answered: ‘nobody needs to know my secret’,” said Susan. Despite his grumpiness, his niece called him “my treasure”. The researcher asked her whether it was difficult living with an old person for so long, as this probably kept her from going out whenever she wanted to. “You don’t get it, do you?,” said the niece. “For me, it’s a privilege.” People who grow old in this region are always surrounded by people, contrary to other places. They receive visits constantly. And, culturally, they are the center of attention in the house.
Based on this research of area and global results from other researchers, Susan prepared a ranking of factors that influence longevity the most:
#1 social interaction
#2 close relationships (best friends)
#3 stop smoking
#4 stop drinking
#5 flu vaccine
#6 cardiac rehabilitation
#8 body mass index
#9 high blood pressure
#10 clean air
Susan points out that there’s a big difference between having friends that personally interact with you and those who talk to you from far away. Face-to-face interaction releases oxytocin, which reduces cortisol (stress biomarker) and releases dopamine. “People don’t notice this. But it’s these substances that promote the feeling of pleasure,” says the psychologist.
“Some simians have the habit of picking lice from each another. The custom, contrary to what many may think, does not increase the transmission of lice, according to a recent survey. It only brings happiness.” For humans also, social interaction only helps.