I love the way Christmas brings people together: a singalong at a carol concert, church on Christmas day, Boxing Day football matches, mulled wine with the neighbours. And – you’ll be surprised to learn – all this festive fun helps us age well. Yes really! Christmas isn’t all expanding waistlines and hangovers: it can boost our longevity in unexpected ways. The more social elements of the festive season are a fantastic boost for our health.
People living in communities with better social cohesion tend to have longer telomeres (a key marker for ageing), whereas loneliness and social isolation have been linked to dementia, heart disease, stroke and depression. According to The Royal College of GPs loneliness is as big as killer as diabetes. Psychology Professor, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, believes it is as much of a health risk as smoking, air pollution and obesity.
Joining in, getting involved and group activities are all common to both superagers and Blue Zoners (those living in areas of the world with the highest numbers of centenarians). Studies of both groups have identified the benefits of attending weekly religious services and taking part in physical, and non-physical leisure activities, with other people. It’s the ‘other people’ element that’s crucial – and it happens naturally at Christmas. Here’s how:
TAKE ME TO CHURCH
Religious services may not be your thing. But long-term studies have found a consistent link between regular religious attendance and longevity – research found that men going to church weekly reduced their risk of dying from heart disease by 40%. And a study tracking 21,000 Americans found those attending a religious service more than once a week lived up to seven years longer. But what if you’re one of the many Brits who only attend church at Christmas? (Church of England attendance is eight times higher in the festive season than any other time of year). There are still benefits from time spent in a group activity, the meditative moments of prayer and singing together.
SING IF YOU’RE WINNING
Getting together and belting out a few favourite carols is always a joy. Exercising our lungs increases immunity and improves posture. There are mental benefits too: singing reduces stress and helps us feel at one with the people around us, which has its own uplifting effect. Fascinating research from Oxford University suggests that singing may have evolved to bond large groups of strangers quickly, by making us feel good about working together in harmony (literally).
FIND YOUR OWN ‘CHURCH’
You don’t have to go to church, or sing carols, to reap the benefits of ‘togetherness’. You just need to find your own ‘church’. It could be a concert, a gig or a sporting event. Psychologists have noted that sport has many of the same effects on spectators as religion. Coming together in huge, cathedral-like spaces, worshipping players like gods, waving banners, chanting…. It’s not hard to make a link. As a family, we have season tickets for our local premiership club and love the community aspects of regular attendance at matches.
So wherever your Christmas plans take you, enjoy the experience and embrace its age-well benefits. If you know of people on their own, try and involve them in a local activity. And do share this post with anyone who needs a nudge: knowing a carol service is good for you might be all it takes to get more involved.
FAVOURITE XMAS RECIPES
I’m sprinkling some of our favourite age-well Christmas recipes across our social media feeds at the moment, so make sure you’re following us on:
to catch them all (links at the top right-hand corner of this page). But here, just for you, are some of our best-loved festive dishes:
photo: G Schouten de Jel