Why do women live longer than men? Theories abound. Some say it’s because estrogen lowers the risk of heart disease. Others say women have stronger immune systems. Still others believe that men are more likely to take risks. But after studying a community on the island of Sardinia in Italy, psychologist and longevity researcher Susan Pinker developed a different theory: Your life expectancy has everything to do with your social interactions and personal connections. Women around the globe tend to have larger and more varied social networks than men, which could explain the difference.
As Pinker explained in a Ted Talk, the people on the island of Sardinia have fascinated researchers for quite some time. Sardinia is home to an impressive number of centenarians. It has more than six times as many centenarians as mainland Italy, and ten times as many as North America. The real kicker? Sardinian men live just as long as Sardinian women. This suggests that Sardinian men have social networks that are just as strong as the Sardinian women’s.
Exploring the Culture in Sardinia
When Pinker visited Sardinia herself, she interviewed several centenarians, all of whom defy our notions of what it takes to live to 100. For example, Pinker wondered whether longevity was linked to a sunny disposition, until she met a 101-year-old named Giovanni. Giovanni was apparently the grumpiest man she’d ever met. She wondered whether a healthy diet had anything to do with it until she interviewed Teresa, who was over 100 years old. Teresa made and ate homemade pasta filled with high-fat ricotta and drowned in sauce every week.
Instead, Giovanni, Teresa, and the other centenarians had something else in common. They were all surrounded by family. NBC News notes that Sardinians revere their elders, who rarely live on their own in retirement or nursing homes. Instead, older family members live with their children, helping to maintain the home and watch grandchildren.
“As people [in Sardinia] age and indeed across their lifespans, they’re always surrounded by extended family, by friends, by neighbors, the priests, the barkeeper, the grocer people, [who] are always there or dropping by,” Pinker explained. “They are never left to live solitary lives. This is unlike the rest of the developed world.”
The Top 10 Predictors of Your Life Expectancy
Research supports Pinker’s theory. In an in-depth review from PLOS Medicine, psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad and researchers from Brigham Young University in Utah set out to determine the strongest predictors of life expectancy. They examined 148 different studies and over 308,000 participants to find out which factors predicted longevity.
As Pinker noted in her Ted Talk, Holt-Lunstad looked at every aspect of the participants’ lifestyles. That included diet, exercise, marital status, doctor visits, drinking and smoking status, and more. After seven years, Holt-Lunstad made a note of the participants who lived and those who died.
She and her team narrowed down the data until they found the most powerful predictors of how long a person will live. In order of the least powerful predictor to the strongest, those factors were:
- Clean air.
- Whether a person received treatment for hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Lean versus overweight.
- Whether you’ve had a cardiac event (such as a heart attack) and you’re in rehab.
- Whether a person received the flu vaccine.
- Drinking habits.
- Smoking habits.
- Close relationships.
- Social integration.
If the order of predictors on this list surprised you, it should! Clean air and treatment for hypertension are among the weakest predictors for how long a person will live. How much you weigh is in the bottom three — so try to give yourself a break there! Plus, getting the flu vaccine was a far more powerful predictor than many of us anticipated.
Understanding Close Relationships and Social Integration
What’s even more interesting are the top two predictors: close relationships and social integration. Close relationships are your closest friends and family members. Those are the people you would call if you needed money or help because you were sick.
Social integration refers to how much you interact with the people in your community. Do you take an extra minute to talk to the cashier in the grocery store or exchange pleasantries with your neighbor? Do you attend a weekly book club meeting, or take exercise classes with friends? Those are the daily interactions that could boost your longevity.
According to Pinker, speaking with people face to face lowers your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. It also lights up many more areas of the brain than online interactions. So, the next time you are out and about, don’t rush through your day! Take the time to strike up a conversation at the post office or ask your close friend out for lunch. The best part? You’ll be enriching not only your life, but the lives of the people around you.
Want to know more? Watch Susan Pinker’s Ted Talk below.