From the American Indian’s running tribe to tribe to warn them of eminent danger, to the wonders of the internet, technology continues to transform our lives. For all the many good advances technology has brought to our lives, it has also brought about negative changes in our lifestyle that are affecting our longevity.
If I were to ask you what you think you need to do to help you live longer you might say; eat a healthy diet, exercise, get enough sleep, de-stress, floss daily and drink plenty of water. Or your answer may include more health related actions like; quit smoking, limit alcohol consumption, reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. All these answers are correct, but how does technology affect our longevity?
Award winning author, social scientist, and psychologist Susan Pinker has taken a close look at the villages on the small Italian of Sardinia, where just as many men live to 100 as women do. In the developed world, women live an average of six to eight years longer than men. Six to eight years is a-lot! Sardinia has 10 times as many men live past 100 than the average population. It’s the only place in the world, where men live as long as women.
So why is this? Genetics account for just 25 percent of longevity. The other 75 percent is lifestyle. So what does it take to live to 100 and beyond?
What Susan discovered is, there are two features of your social life that can affect your longevity. First, are your close relationships. These are the people that you can call when you need to borrow money, who will call the doctor if you are not feeling well or will help you if you’re having a crisis or are in despair. The second is what she calls social interaction. This means how many people you interact with throughout your day. How many people do you talk to? This includes both your weak and your strong bonds, so not just the people you’re really close to, who mean a lot to you, but everyone you interact with. Do you talk to the guy who every day makes you your coffee? Do you talk to the postman? Do you talk to your neighbor who walks their dog every day? Do you play cards, board games or athletic activities? Those interactions are one of the strongest predictors of how long you’ll live.
This led her to examine the question: if we now spend more time online than on any other activity, including sleeping does it make a difference? Is there a difference between interacting in person and interacting via social media? Is it the same thing as being there if you’re in contact constantly with your friends or family through text, for example? Well, the short answer to the question is no, it’s not the same thing. Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters. Like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future. So simply making eye contact with somebody, shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust and it lowers your cortisol levels. So it lowers your stress. Dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain. It’s like a naturally produced morphine.
Neuroscientists have mapped the difference between what goes on in our brains when we interact in person versus when we’re watching something static. They compared the brain function of two groups of people; those interacting live with another person in a dynamic conversation, and compared that to the brain activity of people who were watching someone talk about the same subject but in a canned video, like YouTube. Through imaging the areas of the participant’s brains that are associated with attention social intelligence and emotional reward they could see much more activity with real social activity compared to taking in static content. These areas become much more engaged when we’re interacting with a live person.
Now, why do women live longer than men? One major reason is that women are more likely to prioritize and groom their face-to-face relationships over their lifespans. Evidence shows that these in-person friendships create a biological force field against disease and decline. Three stable relationships seem to be the magic number to affect your lifespan. The power of such face-to-face contact is really why there are the lowest rates of dementia among people who are socially engaged. It’s why women who have breast cancer are four times more likely to survive their disease than loners are. Why men who’ve had a stroke who meet regularly to play poker or to have coffee are better protected by that social contact than they are by medication. This is something very powerful they can do. This face-to-face contact provides stunning benefits, yet now almost a quarter of the population says they have no one to talk to.
You can do something about this. Put down your phone. Get up from your computer. Turn off your television. Have face to face conversations. Build in-person interaction into your community, into your workplace, into your agenda to bolster your immune system, sending feel-good hormones surging through the bloodstream and brain to help you live longer. Call this building your village, and building it, and sustaining it is a matter of life and death.